11/19/2014 2:17PM

Meet begins with reason for optimism

Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography
The Fair Grounds turf course saw extensive renovations in the off-season to improve drainage.

After several years of betting declines at Fair Grounds, morale at the storied New Orleans track has sunk along with the handle.

All-sources average daily handle dipped 12 percent during the 2013-2014 meet compared with the year before. It’s hard to fathom: Betting on races at Fair Grounds, which ought to be a premier winter simulcast signal and has long enjoyed popularity in its city and region, has fallen about 46 percent in five seasons.

Fans have felt neglected. Horsemen have been disaffected.

But the bottom must lie somewhere, and hopefully, Fair Grounds, which launches its season Friday, already has found it.

Spurred to action by the Louisiana legislature, the Louisiana State Racing Commission, and the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, Fair Grounds has made significant capital investments since its most recent season of discontent. A Churchill Downs Inc. property, Fair Grounds is using revenue from its slot-machine and video poker business to pay for the work.

The infield tote board is graced for the first time in years with a functioning video board. The blurry video board in the picturesque paddock has been replaced. Several barns have been upgraded, while Fair Grounds has promised improved customer service. And, probably most important, extensive renovations have been performed on a turf course that has not drained properly for years.

“We’re pretty optimistic about the meet,” said Fair Grounds president Tim Bryant.

Bryant said he couldn’t comment, and CDI did not respond to requests for comment, on persistent rumors the company has recently sought a buyer for the track. CDI purchased Fair Grounds out of bankruptcy in 2004, and has since narrowed its racetrack holdings.

Beginning with legislative hearings last spring, Fair Grounds has faced strong pressure to upgrade its facility, with focus on the grass course. The course has performed poorly after rain for years. Before the 2011-2012 meet, the entire course was replaced with a new type of grass. Another new strain of seed was added before last year’s meet. Bits and pieces of drainage improvement have been done on several occasions.

But problems with the grass course intensified last season, with widespread concern over drainage and safety. Jockeys declined to ride the course in the middle of one card. Even after days of dry weather, the turf stayed wet.

Whether this year’s renovations fundamentally improve the course won’t be known until racing begins, but Bryant said extensive improvements were done during late summer and early autumn. Nearly 1,700 feet of drainage pipe were replaced, and drainage work this year was tied in with work performed before last year on the turns and on the course’s French drains. The project was completed in October.

“That afforded the crew time to get the course in shape,” Bryant said. “There was pipe that needed to be replaced. Obviously, we hope that’s going to help out.”

There’s just one turf race scheduled for Friday’s meet opener, which has a first post of 5 p.m. Central. But because of insufficient lighting, turf racing on evening cards is restricted to the program’s first two races. Fair Grounds has no other plans to limit turf racing this meet.

A steady diet of grass races on a functioning course would help field size; the average number of Fair Grounds starters per race fell from 8.48 in 2011-2012 all the way to 7.88 last meet.

Purses were cut twice last meet, but are budgeted this year at a level – $200,000 to $210,000 in average overnight outlays – similar to recent seasons. The race week spans Thursday to Sunday most of the meet, with Mondays added in January.

As always, the meet begins slowly, relying on Louisiana-based outfits as horses from Kentucky, Illinois, and other more northern venues start trickling in through December. Bryant said the backstretch, capacity 1,838, housed about 1,400 horses Nov. 14.

The composition of the trainer pool is not much changed. Perennial leading trainer Steve Asmussen has his usual Fair Grounds complement, and the top 34 trainers by wins from the 2013-2014 meet return this year. Gone are two Canadian outfits, those of Josie Carroll and Malcolm Pierce. Newcomers include Stephanie Beattie, Stephen Lyster, Phil Bauer, and Joe Sharp.

Sharp is the husband of Rosie Napravnik, the perennial leading Fair Grounds rider who, pregnant, stopped riding races after the Breeders’ Cup. Shaun Bridgmohan (58 wins last season) and Leandro Goncalves (38 wins) have moved their tack to Florida, and adding Napravnik’s 114 victories, there are more than 200 jockey wins to be reallocated. James Graham, who won 105 races last year, and Richard Eramia, who had 83 wins, could vie for leading rider.

A total of 86 horses were entered for the Friday opener, an average of more than nine per race.

Fair Grounds would take that any day.

Things, for the most part, have nowhere to go but up this season.