09/09/2005 11:00PM

La. Downs winter meet could be 40 days


The date parameters of a proposed Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs became more defined Friday after the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association reached an "agreement in principle" with Fair Grounds owner Churchill Downs, Inc., said Sean Alfortish, president of the Louisiana HBPA.

The meet would run approximately 40 days, and extend from around Nov. 10 to Jan. 15.

Alfortish on Friday had ongoing discussions, with, among others, Tom Meeker, president of CDI; Randy Soth, general manager of Fair Grounds; officials from Harrah's Entertainment, which owns Louisiana Downs; and Charles Gardiner, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission.

"We have an agreement in principal to run the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs at approximately 40 days," said Alfortish. "It's not etched in stone that it's 40 as opposed to 39 or 38, but it's approximately 40 and it's going to depend upon Randy Soth and myself working through some of the dates and the stakes schedule through the weekend. But we expect to have an official plan by Tuesday morning to present to the racing commission."

The Fair Grounds meet is being temporarily moved because of the damage Hurricane Katrina has inflicted on New Orleans. Churchill officials had initially discussed an 18 to 20-date meet in December at Louisiana Downs, while the Louisiana HBPA suggested 45 dates fromthe traditional Thanksgiving opener through February or early March.

Fair Grounds was to have raced 83 dates from November to March 2006.

In addition to commission approval, the special meet could need legislative approval to transfer the approximately $8 million in the Fair Grounds purse account to Louisiana Downs. The horsemen, however, have already received word than an executive order would be issued from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

"We all feel pretty confident that the governor's executive order will suffice for all the legalities to be in place, but irrespective of that, if there is a legislative session, we're going to probably put it in there just so we don't miss anything," said Alfortish.

"Churchill and the horsemen agree that this needs to be a strong meet to show the resiliency of Louisiana racing in the aftermath of this hurricane. And as such, it is our plan and our intention to average purses of no less than $250,000 a day and potentially going to as much as $300,000 a day, depending on things such as simulcast and field size and things of that nature."

To that end, Alfortish has also asked the commission to suspend "jail" for claimed horses, a move that would enable a claimed horse to run back at the same level he was taken for or less, rather than being forced to be raised in price for a certain period of time after the claim. The idea is to enhance field size, and Alfortish said the proposed change was agreeable to Fair Grounds racing secretary Ben Huffman.

Alfortish is also in negotiations to see that Louisiana Downs remains open for training through the end of March, which would help horsemen used to racing at Fair Grounds in the spring. He also is in talks with Evangeline Downs near Lafayette to run Louisiana Downs's scheduled fall Quarter Horse meet at Evangeline Downs near Lafayette.

Ray Tromba, vice president of operations at Louisiana Downs, was among those Alfortish met with on Friday.

"Things like this are hard to make work overnight, and it seems like they've made a lot of progress," said Tromba.

A call to an official with CDI was not immediately returned on Saturday.