04/08/2003 11:00PM

Long road to hoe, but worth it

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SHELBYVILLE, Ind. - Not too long ago, it was nothing but a barren expanse, the kind of land that tends to dominate this sparsely populated region that stretches southeastward from the outskirts of Indianapolis all the way to Cincinnati.

But today, thanks in large part to the unwavering determination of a local homebuilder named Paul Estridge Sr., the newest racetrack in America rises above the Indiana horizon. Indiana Downs kicks off its inaugural season of Thoroughbred racing Friday evening, following Hoosier Park as the second legalized parimutuel track in this state.

The brand of racing at Indiana Downs will be modest, with a per-day purse average of $110,000 having been forecast for the inaugural 30-day meet, which runs through Memorial Day, May 26. The Thoroughbred meet will be followed by a 100-day Standardbred meet that will run from June 3 through Oct. 14.

The racing product during the Thoroughbred season will be competitive, respectable, and, most importantly, bettable, according to Indiana Downs general manager Jon Schuster, an industry-savvy executive with a broad knowledge of the North American simulcast market.

Schuster, 44, worked primarily in simulcasting for nearly 10 years at Penn National, where he made ties with many people who decide which simulcast signals are offered where. He is confident these connections will lead to the Indiana Downs signal being made available at a reasonable number of outlets, giving the track an initial burst of momentum that "we hopefully can sustain through the entire meet and beyond," Schuster said.

Initial projections call for all-sources handle to average about $800,000 per program, according to Schuster.

"Obviously we're hoping to get our name out there right away," he said.

The genesis of Indiana Downs came some 15 years ago, well before even Hoosier Park, which first hosted Thoroughbreds in 1995, was a reality. Estridge attempted to push parimutuel horse racing through the Indiana legislature, only to fail. After parimutuels finally became legal, it was Hoosier, with the powerful Churchill Downs lobby behind it, that won the license to build the state's first track.

Ever since then, Estridge has been trying to get his own track. He was rebuffed repeatedly by the Indiana Racing Commission before finally winning a license in 2001 to build a racetrack and as many as four satellite wagering facilities. When Indiana Downs opened last December for a 19-night harness meet, he said in an emotional speech that the building of Indiana Downs "has been a hard, hard road - one, I must say, until standing here tonight, I would have said I would never do over again. But tonight is truly a dream come true."

Naturally, Hoosier fought Estridge in numerous political battles, both publicly and behind the scenes. One of the major prizes at stake was a share of the state-mandated riverboat casino subsidy, a tax that supplements racetrack purses from casino admissions taxes. Ultimately, a compromise was struck, and now Indiana has two functioning racetracks.

Estridge is a partner in Indiana Downs with his son, Paul Jr., Ralph Ross, Allen Cohen, Tom McCauley, and Duff Taylor. He credits Ross Mangano and the Oliver family for being the initial financial backers in his dream project. Including the satellite facilities - one already is complete in Evansville, while as many as eight to 10 cities are candidates for the remaining three - the total price tag on Indiana Downs is expected to come to about $40 million.

Unlike some of its grossly overbuilt predecessors of the last couple of decades - Birmingham, Garden State, and Canterbury being prime examples - Indiana Downs was built within a scope that does not seem overly ambitious. The biggest days of the year most likely will attract 4,000 to 5,000 people, said Schuster, and a design to accommodate anything greater would have been wasteful. Instead, the emphasis will be on the kind of conveniences and comforts that the modern simulcast player has come to expect. There are hundreds of televisions and other horseplayer-friendly amenities strategically located throughout the tri-level plant.

Indiana Downs is located in a working-class area that was chosen partly because of its accessibility and spaciousness. The property is located just off a major interstate exit in this southeastern Indianapolis suburb and rests on some 150 acres, a significant part of it still unused. Schuster, who grew up in Indianapolis, said he has "no doubt" that the metropolitan area is large enough to support two racetracks, assuming their live products do not compete head-to-head, and that the local market area includes a surprisingly sizable number of racing-savvy fans.

Hoosier Park, which is located in Anderson, Ind., 20 miles northwest of Indianapolis, is currently holding a harness meet, which opened March 22 and runs through May 30. Hoosier's 70-day Thoroughbred meet runs from Aug. 29 through Dec. 4.

The Indiana Downs main track is one mile in circumference, while a turf course, which is expected to be ready in 2004, will be seven furlongs. Schuster and Indiana Downs racing secretary Butch Cook are hopeful the availability of turf will be a major draw for horsemen in coming years. Hoosier Park, a seven-furlong track located some 50 minutes away, has no turf racing.

With a stable area of only about 450 stalls, but with plenty of acreage on which to expand, Indiana Downs will, at least initially, rely heavily on shippers to help fill its programs. Schuster said horsemen from Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, and a handful of other states have said they intend to run horses here.

The horsemen and jockeys expected to participate include some of the same that frequent Hoosier each fall, although the different time of year will bring a different mix. Familiar locally based trainers include Gary Patrick, Marvin Johnson, George Leonard 3rd, Kim Hammond, Dennis Moore, and Steve Moyer. The leading rider most likely will come from a group of veterans who have said they plan to be active in varying degrees - Rodney Prescott, Sid LeJeune Jr., Jeff Johnston, Bill Troilo, Brian Peck, Kris Prather, Fabio Arguello Jr., Eddie Zuniga, Mike Morgan, and Orlando Mojica.

The day-to-day racing at Indiana Downs will consist primarily of medium- to lower-level claiming races. Because of the purse subsidies, horses typically will compete for purses that exceed the claiming price. Hoosier Park long has capitalized on such circumstances by carding large fields, which in turn drives handle upward, which then increases purses. Indiana Downs also would benefit from such a cycle.

Even though Schuster and his staff have worked long days to prepare Indiana Downs for this inaugural Thoroughbred meet, not all the pieces were yet in place as of last month. The main track was in the process of being renovated from the Standardbred meet, the turf course had not yet even been seeded, the jockeys' room was largely unfinished, no horses were on the grounds, and some fine-tuning was being done to the paddock and its runway.

Nonetheless, an unmistakable excitement already was in the air. After all, the history of Thoroughbred racing at Indiana Downs is about to begin.

"We are all extremely optimistic about the future of Indiana Downs," Schuster said. "We are looking for our niche in the market, both locally and nationally, and we believe we have all the right things in place. We'll open our doors Friday night and hope it's the start of something terrific."

AT A GLANCE

INDIANA DOWNS

RACING SCHEDULE: 30 days; Friday through May 26; dark Sundays through Tuesdays in April; dark Sundays and Mondays in May (except closing day, when open).

POST TIME: 6:30 p.m., except April 12 (2 p.m.) and closing day (1 p.m.); all times are Eastern Standard.

ADMISSIONS: General, free; clubhouse, $5.

PARKING: General, free; preferred, $3; valet, $5.

AVERAGE PURSES: About $110,000 per day.

MEET HIGHLIGHT: $40,000 Oliver Stakes on April 12; $40,000 Checkered Flag Stakes on May 26; six $35,000 stakes for Indiana-breds; 12 stakes overall.

LOCATION: Just off Interstate 74 on Fairlane Rd. (exit 109) in Shelbyville, Ind., about 20 miles southeast of downtown Indianapolis.

PHONE: (317) 421-0000.

INTERNET: www.indianadowns.com., www.horsemenspark.com