02/20/2013 5:21PM

Fair Grounds: Turf course looks good, but seldom fit for racing

Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography
The Col. Bradley Handicap on Jan. 26, won by Optimizer, was one of the few races run on the Fair Grounds turf course since 2013 began.

NEW ORLEANS – A half-hour after the end of training Wednesday morning, a Fair Grounds trainer beckoned a reporter onto a viewing stand looking out over a deserted racetrack.

“Look at that turf course,” the trainer said, pointing toward the lush green oval, blades of grass waving in a strong east wind. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a turf course look that good.”

The trainer’s sense of amazement came because despite looking good, the Fair Grounds turf has been the source of deep anxiety this racing season. After 56 days of racing during the 2012-2013 Fair Grounds meet, only 75 turf races have been contested. That puts the track on pace to run 112 turf races during its 84-day meet, which would be by far the lowest seasonal total in recent Fair Grounds history. Since 2001, Fair Grounds has run between 127 and 210 turf races per season, with the mean nearer the larger than smaller outlier.

The recent turf trend-line has been looking worse. Since Jan. 1, Fair Grounds has hosted only 18 turf races. During the same period (Jan. 1-Feb. 18) over the last six years, there have been 68, 54, 41, 79, 45, and 59 grass races.

And with a major day of stakes racing, including the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap coming Saturday, Mother Nature does not appear to be in a helpful mood. There was a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms here Thursday and Thursday night, an 80 percent chance of showers Friday, and a 50 percent chance of showers Friday night. The forecast for Saturday has improved in the last 24 hours, however, with partly sunny conditions now predicted.

Eric Halstrom, Fair Grounds assistant general manager and vice president of racing, said Wednesday that the Fair Grounds Handicap and the Bayou Handicap, which includes Grade 1 winner Daisy Devine, would be left on a soft course as long as the grass is deemed safe.

“We’ve talked about it already, and if the course is soft, those two stakes will be our first priority,” Halstrom said.

The Fair Grounds portable rail usually is taken down for significant stakes races, but the rail will be left set up 15 feet out into the course this weekend. The turf between the portable rail and the permanent inner rail is pristine and attractive, but a walk over the course also reveals it to be far softer than paths outside the 15-foot rail, particularly on the turns.

Horsemen here – especially those with many grass horses in their stable – have expressed concern that the Fair Grounds turf is not draining properly. Even after several good drying days, they say, the grass still holds moisture as if there had been recent precipitation.

“I’ve been coming here about 25 years, and we all know the turf course used to dry better than this,” said trainer Malcolm Pierce, who has a number of grass runners for the Sam-Son Farms operation.

Halstrom, though, disputed the notion that something has gone wrong with the drainage system. Drains are inspected with cameras dropped under the course every off season, Halstrom said. All except one on the backstretch, which had collapsed, were in working order late last summer, and the malfunctioning drain was replaced.

Halstrom points out that New Orleans has had a wetter winter this year than last, which is true. Since Dec. 1, 15.26 inches of rain have been measured at the New Orleans Airport compared with 7.83 during the same period a year ago and 7.91 inches two years ago. Still, the 15.26 inches is just about normal for the period, and does not come close to the 25.92 inches of rain recorded from Dec. 1 through Feb. 20 in 2009-2010. That season, Fair Grounds ran 156 races on turf, including 41 races from Jan. 1 through Feb. 18.