04/29/2010 12:00AM

Meet packs big races into five cards

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The racing program at Louisiana Downs will have a different feel this meet. The track will have its earliest opening and closing in years, and the stakes schedule has been streamlined into five big-event cards, led by the Super Derby program Sept. 25. Louisiana Downs has also has a new racing secretary and hired Hall of Fame rider Braulio Baeza. The changes go into effect Saturday, when the track begins its 84-date meet. The season ends Sept. 26.

Louisiana Downs is opening almost a month earlier than originally scheduled in order to feature live racing alongside the simulcasts of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, said Trent McIntosh, the director of racing operations. The earlier opening also flows better for horsemen, he said, since two other meets in the state, Delta Downs and Fair Grounds, closed in late March.

Louisiana Downs has restructured its 30-race stakes schedule this meet, grouping most of its stakes into five rich cards. The most significant is Sept. 25, when $1.25 million in stakes will be led by the Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby.

"We've now got eight stakes that day instead of six," McIntosh said.

Louisiana Downs will close the day after the Super Derby, a departure from its typical closing the first part of October.

David Heitzmann takes over as racing secretary for McIntosh, while Baeza will be the clerk of scales. Baeza was the assistant clerk in New York in 2004, when a case naming him and clerk Mario Sclafani alleged jockeys were allowed to ride at incorrect weights in some races. But the charges were dismissed by a judge in 2007 as concerns were raised that investigators did not understand weighing procedures. Baeza most recently was the clerk of scales at the winter Quarter Horse meet.

Jockey Don Simington, who has won the last two titles at Louisiana Downs, is back but will miss opening weekend. He broke his collarbone in a spill in March at Delta Downs, received clearance from doctors Tuesday, and should resume riding the second week of the meet, said his agent, Ron Ardoin.

Jerry Cart is back to defend his training title against a stable area that includes divisions of horses from Bret Calhoun, Allen Milligan, and Al Stall Jr.

McIntosh said the stakes schedule is worth $2.7 million this meet and that purses are projected to be $160,000 a program. Last meet, purses averaged about $175,000 a card.

Louisiana Downs, which has a slots casino, will race Saturday and Sunday for its first two weeks, then add Thursdays and Fridays.