02/10/2003 1:00AM

Fair Grounds reduces purses


NEW ORLEANS - For the second straight season, Fair Grounds has cut purses in the middle of its meet. The purse cut was announced Monday and takes effect Saturday. It will reduce average daily purses here by about 10 percent, trimming purses in each race by $1,000 or $2,000. Eight stakes races will have reduced purses, including the Grade 2 Explosive Bid, which will be cut from $700,000 to $650,000.

Through 54 days this season, Fair Grounds paid out average daily purses of $249,656. Handle, which drives purses, has remained at levels comparable to last season. Through Sunday, the track had handled averaged about $4.3 million in total handle each day, compared with about $4.2 million last year. But Fair Grounds overpaid purses by more than $1 million during its last meet and is trying to avoid a similar overpayment this year with the cuts. Bryan Krantz, Fair Grounds's president and general manager, said meet-long projections this season suggested the track could wind up overpaying purses by close to $3 million. Even with this round of cuts, Krantz said Fair Grounds will overpay purses by about $500,000.

"Everything runs in cycles and we're definitely on the downtrend of a cycle right now," Krantz said.

The purse cut reinforces the precarious terrain Fair Grounds occupies. Delta Downs in Vinton, La., a major competitor for statebred horses, has just announced a 40 percent purse increase. Purses also are up at Oaklawn Park, which competes with Fair Grounds for horses. The pressures have sent Fair Grounds handle and average daily purses back to levels from the late 1990's, and after years of steady growth, business here has declined the last two seasons.

Fair Grounds has lobbied hard for the slot machines that have boosted Delta's purse structure, but has been rebuffed by the Louisiana state legislature the last two years. The track will try again this spring, and without slots, Krantz thinks Fair Grounds will change drastically.

"We think this is a make it or break it year for us in terms of getting slots," Krantz said. "If we don't get slots here, we've got to go back and figure out where Fair Grounds fits in the pecking order of racetracks. If it means we're going to be a local or regional track, that's what we're going to do."

Trainer Tom Amoss, a fixture here for many years, was bitterly disappointed with the newest cuts. "In the face of what's happening at Delta and what's now happening at Fair Grounds, the Fair Grounds racetrack will be nothing more than a glorified training center for Delta and Oaklawn," Amoss said.