08/04/2010 4:30PM

Heat is on high at Louisiana Downs


BOSSIER CITY, La. – Summertime has set in with a vengeance in the Ark-La-Tex region this week. Wednesday was Day 4 of a heat wave here, with the thermometer topping out at or above the century mark with little relief in the forecast. Triple-digit temperatures along with the infamous Louisiana humidity make Louisiana Downs one of the hottest racing venues anywhere.

Some summers are worse than others. Time will tell how 2010 will compare with seasons past. There was 1998, when the mercury reached 100 degrees 35 times and soared as high as 107. In 2005, there 18 100-plus days and virtually no rain until Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in August and September.

“I remember 1980,” says former trainer and current Louisiana Downs steward Dale Coleman. “Thirty straight days of at least 100. I had a couple of horses that quit sweating on me. I literally had to air condition their stalls. It kept them alive but it was brutal.”

Despite the thermal horror stories, the track, remarkably, has never had a cancellation due to excessive heat in its 37-year history.

“I think it is a credit to our horsemen,” said state steward Roy Wood Jr. “Whether it is a change in their training routine, nutrition, how the horse is handled, they have had a lot of experience dealing with the heat through the years.”

While it is obviously impracticable to air-condition all the stalls in the barn area, measures can be taken to make coping with the heat easier for both human and horse.

Training hours are pushed back as early as sunrise will allow. The open-air walking ring, where owners, trainers, jockeys and horses assemble for last-minute instructions after saddling in more temperate times, is abandoned in favor of the covered paddock. Post parades and warm ups are reduced from the traditional 10 or 11 minutes to seven or eight. Several water hoses are strategically placed, and the track’s ice machines work overtime.

The mantra for the human element of the summertime equation in this latitude is a familiar one, “hydrate, hydrate and then hydrate some more.”

“I take an electrolyte supplement but it is all about water and plenty of it,” said jockey Carlos Gonzalez.

Two-time defending riding champ and 20-year Louisiana Downs veteran Don Simington agrees.

“I’ve always drank a lot of water,” Simington said. “But the last five years or so, it seems the older I get, the more it helps.”

“The key is to hydrate ahead of time,” added paddock judge Joe Peluso. “If you go out and start to get woozy, it’s already too late.”

Water is also a critical component to the racing surface this time of the year on both the main track and the turf course.

“We start by putting by putting about 24,000 gallons on the main between 3 and 5 a.m. to get ready for training,” said track superintendent Billy McKeever. “Then we go from there.”

McKeever puts another 8,000 gallons on the track at the renovation break and another 8,000 after the track closes at 9:30. Things get serious in the hours before first post when 32,000 gallons go down. And then there are another 8,000 that get applied between each race.

The turf course is equally as thirsty.

“Do the math,” said McKeever with a chuckle. “The course is about seven acres in surface area and we put as much as an inch and a half of water on it some nights.”

Such is the price of doing business during the dog days of summer.