11/20/2013 3:58PM

Fair Grounds: Slots revenue props up purses

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Fair Grounds management hopes to get more use out of its turf course this season, thanks to extensive renovation to the surface and improved drainage.

NEW ORLEANS – Thank goodness for the slots and video poker. The casino gaming operations in Fair Grounds’s business portfolio continue to prop up a racing purse structure that would be in significant decline if it relied on betting handle alone.

Fair Grounds will open an 84-day meet Friday with competitive average daily purses expected to be paid out at about the same level offered during the 2012-2013 meet, roughly $320,000 per day including stakes, and around $240,000 per day without them. But average daily all-sources handle last year declined by 8.5 percent compared with the previous season, and betting by that measure has fallen here by about 15 percent since the 2009-2010 race meet. It’s the purse-dedicated revenue from the track’s other gambling sources keeping Fair Grounds a desirable winter racing destination.

Fair Grounds turned out to be a hotbed of Triple Crown talent last spring: Preakness winner Oxbow and Belmont winner Palace Malice both raced in the Risen Star Stakes in February, and the subsequent winner of multiple derbies, Departing, was in the $1 million Louisiana Derby. Despite the quality evident in much of the racing product last March, betting cratered during the month, falling more than 18 percent compared with March 2012, the second time in three years that March betting declined precipitously.

Fair Grounds hopes it has addressed one factor in the late-season betting drops – its troublesome grass course. The course has failed to properly drain for several years, and a particularly wet winter last year left the turf program – and the course itself – in shambles. During the off-season, Fair Grounds scraped the grass off the turf-course base, added sand to the base, and replanted the oval with a different, supposedly heartier strain of grass. The drainage system on the far turn – a flashpoint for problems last year – has been repaired. The grass has come in thick and beautiful this fall, and the course is smooth and lush, but the turf also looked good before racing began the last two seasons.

“We’re just not going to know how it holds up to racing until we actually get into the season,” said Howard “H” Withers, who became Fair Grounds general manager of racing less than two months ago when Eric Halstrom unexpectedly left.

Withers has worked in racing for decades, but most of his experience came with the American Tote company. In the early 2000s Withers had a stint as an assistant general manager at Thistledown in Ohio, but he was promoted to the top racing job at Fair Grounds from his position as the manager of the track’s offtrack betting parlors, and concedes he has much to learn about the intricacies of day-to-day track operations.

For now, Withers leans heavily on racing secretary Jason Boulet, who said one area of focus this meet will be managing the turf course. Boulet said he will try to limit turf use to two races a day on weekday cards and three per day on weekends, though those goals are always subject to the requirement of filling races four or five times a week. Four-day race weeks will be the norm for much of the season, with five-day weeks commencing in March.

Boulet is working with an ontrack population of about 1,400 horses opening week, he said, a number that will rise as Kentucky-based horsemen ship from the Churchill Downs meet that concludes at the end of November. Early-meet entries this year will get a boost from Chicago horsemen who were stuck last fall at Hawthorne because of an equine herpesvirus outbreak.

There are no major new outfits stabled here this season, though trainers Jimmy Toner and Grant Forster will have small strings here to take advantage of the grass course. Rosie Napravnik is heavily favored to win another riding title, with Shaun Bridgmohan, James Graham, Robby Albarado, Brian Hernandez Jr., and Miguel Mena rounding out the backbone of the jockey colony. Newcomers include David Flores and Florent Geroux.

All the meet’s major stakes days come next year. Road to the Derby Kickoff Day, featuring the Lecomte for 3-year-olds, is Jan. 18; the Louisiana Derby Preview day, headlined by the Risen Star, is Feb. 22, and the $1 million Louisiana Derby is on March 29.

While crack sprinters Delaunay and Gantry are set for a match-up next week in the Thanksgiving Handicap, many stars among local stables won’t get back to business until early next year. That group includes Mylute and Departing, two of the top 3-year-olds here last year, and the classy turf-and-synthetic performer Willcox Inn. Tom Amoss, who trains Delaunay, also has another high-end sprinter here in Sum of the Parts.

The meet starts several days before the traditional Thanksgiving opener because Thanksgiving falls so late in November this year. Post time for Friday’s card is 3 p.m. Central, though thanks to ostrich and camel races in the middle of the card, the program won’t conclude until nearly 10. The feature is race 5, a second-level Louisiana-bred sprint allowance.