02/16/2011 2:25PM

Fair Grounds vows to be prepared for big Friday night crowd


NEW ORLEANS – Starlight racing this past Jan. 21 at Fair Grounds fell victim to its own success. Overrun with a huge crowd, Fair Grounds wasn’t quite prepared to accommodate the raft of fans, but the track has pledged to be ready for any rush this time around.

Friday’s nine-race card, first post 5 p.m. Central, is the third night-racing program of the second Fair Grounds season that has included racing under lights. The experiment appears to be producing successful results – far more than Fair Grounds had anticipated, in fact.

“The January crowd really kind of hit us,” said vice president and general manager for racing Eric Halstrom. “Almost everything was double what we had projected from the year before.”

Fair Grounds doesn’t tally admissions, nor, as per Churchill Downs Inc. policy, does it release handle figures that must instead be obtained from the Louisiana Racing Commission. But Halstrom said the track estimated the Jan. 21 crowd numbered “easily 10,000,” by far the biggest turn-out of the season. Halstrom said ontrack handle far exceeded Friday afternoon betting the week before and after, and that total handle on the night program “was much higher than we anticipated.”

“If we could get the night to be even with the afternoon [in total handle], it’d be a great thing, and last time we got darn near there,” Halstrom said.

Last month, the grandstand was packed on all levels, especially so on the fourth floor, where lines for betting and cocktails snaked through every open area. Halstrom said additional staff has been added for this Friday night card.

“This one we’re sassed up to take care of just about the biggest crowd we can handle,” Halstrom said. “You learn from your mistakes.”

Featured race 8 is a six-furlong dirt sprint for Louisiana-breds and is open to second-level allowance runners or $25,000 claimers. The field is top-heavy with speed, but Red Salt might be the quickest of the quick. Red Salt has been the first-call leader in six of his seven starts, and in his most recent race, on Dec. 16 at Delta, Red Salt zipped through an opening quarter-mile in less than 22 seconds, exceedingly fast for that racetrack. While Red Salt might be worth a play at a price, it looks like any of the six horses in the Friday headliner could win. And solutions to this handicapping puzzle could come even harder for ontrack patrons if those cocktail lines are moving faster this time around.