04/05/2005 12:00AM

Inaugural meet at new site


OPELOUSAS, La. - Louisiana racing begins another chapter Thursday night, when the new Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino begins its inaugural season of Thoroughbred racing. Racing operations join the slots casino, which opened in December 2003, to create the country's first facility that has been designed from the ground up to accommodate slots and racing.

This will the 40th season conducted under the Evangeline banner. The previous 39 meetings were held at the old plant in Lafayette Parish, about 20 miles south of the new site. While voters there rejected the idea of alternative gaming several years ago, those in neighboring St. Landry Parish embraced the idea, setting the change of venue in motion. The Evangeline casino houses more than 1,600 slot machines.

A 20-day Quarter Horse meeting that concluded March 27 produced some encouraging numbers leading into the Thoroughbred season. Although the track's average field size decreased from its fall Quarter Horse meeting - from 7.6 starters per race in 2004 to 7.2 this year - the average handle increased 43.77 percent compared to last fall, according to Mike Howard, the general manager of Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino.

"I am very pleased to have this first meeting under out belts," said Howard. "Racing has enhanced our property by giving our guests another entertainment option."

Racing here will be conducted Thursday through Monday, with first post time at 6:45 p.m. Central.

An expanded stakes program for the 88-day meeting, which concludes on Labor Day, will again be highlighted by the $100,000 Evangeline Mile on Aug. 14, the $50,000 John Henry Handicap on May 6, and the Tellike Handicap on May 20. There will be the usual emphasis on 2-year-olds with the Evangeline Triple, which includes the $100,000 D. S. "Shine" Young Memorial Futurity on July 2, the John Franks Memorial Sales Stakes on July 30, and the Lafayette Stakes on Sept. 5.

July 2 promises to be the biggest day of the season, with the first annual Louisiana Legends Night scheduled. In addition to the "Shine," there will be seven other stakes, all for Louisiana-breds.

Jason Boulet, who is in his first season as Evangeline Downs racing secretary, moved quickly to put together a Louisiana-bred stakes card.

"I felt it was important for Evangeline Downs to develop a night of racing dedicated to our Louisiana-bred horses," said Boulet. "Fair Grounds has Champions Day, Delta Downs has Premier Night, and Louisiana Downs has the Louisiana Breeder's Festival. I believe this night will be a success, and hopefully, we can begin working with the other tracks to develop this series of races into a yearlong event that owners and trainers will want to point their horses toward, and one that will excite racing fans in this state."

Thursday's opening night feature will be the $50,000 Inaugural Handicap. Leading the cast of 3-year-old sprinters is All Wired Up, the starting highweight at 122 pounds. Owned and trained by Carrol Castille, All Wired Up is coming off a win in the C. B. Stephens Memorial Stakes at Delta Downs in his last start. Ricky Faul will ride.