09/05/2005 11:00PM

Longer meet being sought in Louisiana


The head of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the major Thoroughbred horsemen's group in the state, has proposed an alternative plan to the one informally introduced by Churchill Downs Inc. concerning a replacement meet at Louisiana Downs for the upcoming Fair Grounds racing season.

Sean Alfortish, president of the Louisiana HBPA since March, agreed that racing at Fair Grounds itself was untenable this season, but said his organization preferred a longer meet than the one outlined by CDI last Friday. A CDI official suggested that a meet of 18 to 20 days could be held during December at Louisiana Downs, but Alfortish said the HBPA would like the meet to run from late November through the end of February or the beginning of March.

"Our official position, we want to have no less than a 45-day meet," said Alfortish. "It's very important that we start racing on the traditional Thanksgiving opening date."

The Louisiana Racing Commission awarded Fair Grounds an 83-day meet beginning Nov. 24.

Under the Louisiana HBPA plan, racing would be conducted four days a week at Louisiana Downs, with daily purses in the $250,000 range, Alfortish said.

"We would still like to run the Louisiana Derby and the premier stakes for 3-year-olds," said Alfortish.

Andrew Skehan, the chief operating officer of CDI, confirmed through e-mail that he had held talks with Alfortish. Skehan offered no specific details, but said CDI was "happy to have input from our Louisiana horsemen on how best to approach conducting a race meet at Harrah's Louisiana Downs."

Skehan said CDI hoped to "come to consensus with horsemen on these issues in short order."

Alfortish said he has been in regular contact with officials at CDI and Louisiana Downs. He described negotiations between the two parties over moving the Fair Grounds meet to Louisiana Downs, located about 340 miles northwest of New Orleans, as positive.

"I would say they're getting pretty close to a basic agreement," Alfortish said.

According to Alfortish, an attorney with a practice in the New Orleans area, Fair Grounds has about $8 million in its purse account, money that must somehow be paid out to horsemen during an upcoming season. Alfortish said the HBPA calculations about race days and purse structure were based on the existing purse fund and additional purse money that could be earned through simulcast handle.

There is uncertainty about what sort of statutory obligation Fair Grounds has for its upcoming season. The track is required by law to run a certain number of dates in consecutive weeks in order to operate offtrack-betting parlors. The Louisiana Racing Commission would play a central role in moving forward any plan for the upcoming season, but the commission's offices were in New Orleans, and its membership has proven difficult to contact since the hurricane.

One impediment to a Fair Grounds-at-Louisiana-Downs meet beginning in November is a Quarter Horse meet scheduled to be held between Oct. 28 and Nov. 27 at Louisiana Downs. Alfortish said he has approached officials in the Quarter Horse industry about moving the meet, perhaps to Evangeline Downs.

Alfortish also said transferring purse money from one racetrack to another requires approval from the Louisiana legislature. The legislature is expected to convene in a special session to take up work related to the impact of the hurricane on the state.

Alfortish, who claims a long association with the racing industry, said his own farm across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans had sustained damage during Katrina, and that other horse farms in the area had felt the effects of the storm's winds. The Folsom Training Center in Folsom, La., which currently houses about 300 racehorses, was not seriously damaged and had running water.