11/22/2011 4:35PM

Jones happy to be back on Fair Grounds main track

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Barbara D. Livingston
Larry Jones is based at Fair Grounds for the first time since 2008-09.

NEW ORLEANS – Larry Jones has not come back to the Fair Grounds for the first time since the 2008-09 season for Mardi Gras, shrimp po-boys, or second-line parades. Jones is back because he loves the Fair Grounds dirt track. It makes his horses feel good, and it makes him feel good.

“It was getting a little uncomfortable for me riding, and I thought I was getting old earlier this year,” Jones said Tuesday morning outside his office in barn 3, same place he was housed during his two previous meets here. “Now, I’m getting on 10, 11 a day, and I feel great.”

Jones said it was concussion from too-hard dirt surfaces that was jangling his bones, and the racetracks over which he trained were little kinder to his horses, in Jones’s estimation. Jones – or his wife, Cindy, who took over the operation when Jones went into semi-retirement in 2010 – wintered the last two years at Oaklawn, which had problems with its track surface brought on in great part by a spell of cold weather.

“The track had been so hard on horses up there,” said Jones, who has 45 horses at Fair Grounds. “The surface was the biggest reason we decided to come back here, plus there’s a turf course, too. We did so good when we were here before, and the horses came off this track and did well.”

Jones won 15 races during the 2007-08 season and 17 the next winter, when his runners also captured four graded stakes races here. Jones said he has a number of unraced maidens to start at the meet, and he is in the process of bringing 3-year-old filly Joyful Victory back into action. Joyful Victory had arthroscopic surgery to remove a chipped bone in her knee following her last-of-five finish in the July 23 Coaching Club Oaks at Saratoga, and Jones said he thinks the problem was bothering her when she finished second as the odds-on favorite in the Mother Goose Stakes in June. Jones has set the Feb. 11 Tiffany Lass Stakes as a possible comeback race for Joyful Victory.

By that time, stable star Havre de Grace should have arrived in New Orleans. Currently turned out at Vinery Farm in Florida, Havre de Grace is expected to join the Jones string here in mid-January, and Jones said that if all went according to plan, she could make her 2012 debut in the $100,000 New Orleans Ladies on March 26.

Turf course grass gets attention

Fair Grounds has taken steps to address problems with its turf course that cropped up last season, changing the way the course drains and hiring a turf specialist to oversee weed removal and reseeding of the grass.

The turf course had uneven areas last year, with horses stumbling at various spots in the homestretch. After rain, water pooled on the inside of the course, vice president and general manager Eric Halstrom said. That often gave horses racing on outer paths a significant advantage during turf races.

Fair Grounds dug a new ditch inside the inner turf rail during the offseason, an attempt to alter the drainage flow on the course, and after consulting with the Louisiana State University horticultural department, the track hired a company called Sports Turf Specialists – which maintains LSU’s football stadium turf – to revitalize the course.

“We grow and maintain Bermuda grass, and when they called me they were looking for someone to get their Bermuda in better shape,” said Troy Romero, Sports Turf’s owner.

“I would say it was pretty much a disaster when I saw it in July,” Romero said of the course, which annually is trampled during the post-race-meet New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that Fair Grounds hosts. “The thousands of people, trucks, trailers, and bandstands that they put on that track, Bermuda grass is just not designed to take that kind of traffic.”

Romero also said the Fair Grounds course was “under tremendous weed pressure,” with unwanted growth springing up where the Bermuda grass had died off. First, the weeds were eradicated, and then the course was reseeded in an attempt to establish stronger, deeper root systems.

“From my standpoint, it’s as good as it can be right now,” Romero said.

The pressing question, though, is how the turf will look a couple months into the race meet.