09/01/2005 11:00PM

No racing at Fair Grounds


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs Inc. officials announced Friday that the company will not conduct its 2005-06 race meeting at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but contingency plans are in the works for a possible abbreviated meet at Louisiana Downs.

CDI chief operating officer Andrew Skehan, speaking to a group of about 50 horsemen on the Churchill Downs backstretch, said that even if the Fair Grounds property, which is about 2 1/2 miles from downtown New Orleans, were salvageable, the surrounding area would be uninhabitable. "There is no way to run a meet there this year," said Skehan.

Skehan said CDI has had preliminary discussions with Harrah's, which owns Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, about conducting a meet of 18 to 20 days in December. All proceeds would go to relief efforts related to the hurricane. "We don't want to make a penny," said Skehan.

Shortly after the horsemen's meeting ended, CDI president Tom Meeker and chief financial officer Mike Miller addressed the Fair Grounds situation on a media conference call. Meeker said a shortened meet at Louisiana Downs would "provide an opportunity for the horsemen to have a place to run, against some substantial purses, and also we believe by running a meet there we can provide some additional funding for those individuals who are in need, be they horsemen or employees of the track."

Fair Grounds was scheduled to run an 83-day meet during its customary four-month span from Nov. 24 to late March. Like virtually all of New Orleans, the track and some of its buildings have been heavily damaged by the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Meeker said the initial report concerning Fair Grounds is that the grandstand is above water but that the barns and track are submerged in about four feet of water, with the water level having stabilized.

Miller said that Churchill, which acquired Fair Grounds less than a year ago, has a $200 million policy through a combination of many insurance carriers to help cover its losses.

Many details would have to be worked out to run an abbreviated meet at Louisiana Downs, which avoided the damage caused by the hurricane. Louisiana Downs, about 340 miles northwest of New Orleans, will be host to a Quarter Horse meet through Nov. 27, after which a CDI meet could be held through about Dec. 24, said Skehan. The targeted purse structure for such a meet would be about $300,000 a day.

"If we are going to entice people to come, we want to make a big bang," he said.

"There are three or four other possible scenarios that we are still considering," Skehan said. He said that all contingency plans were "very preliminary."

Louisiana Downs is a practical site for an abbreviated meet because it is only a three-hour drive from Oaklawn Park, which is northeast of Bossier City in Hot Springs, Ark. Oaklawn starts its 2006 meet on Jan. 20, and many horsemen could be afforded the opportunity of "an orderly trail," Meeker said.

"We've got to fit it in," Meeker said. "We're looking at various alternatives and trying to fit this into the structure of U.S. racing at that time of year. We're looking at it from the standpoint of purses, availability of horses, and concern for the horsemen to make sure that we have an orderly path for them to follow throughout the course of this year, as well as next year."

Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and Gulfstream Park in Florida typically attract the best horses in the eastern United States during winter. Scott Savin, president and general manager of Gulfstream, acknowledged Friday that he has already received inquiries about stall space for the Gulfstream meet, which opens Jan. 3.

"I've gotten about five or six calls from Fair Grounds horsemen regarding stalls here this winter," said Savin, who declined to identify the trainers. "Naturally, we'll do all we can to help out in this situation, although at the moment it's a little too early to know just what kind of stall space will be available here and to whom we might be able to offer stalls this winter."

Skehan said seven members of the Fair Grounds security team - six men and one woman - had been living in the facility since Saturday.

"They informed us they had about three weeks of provisions to live on if needed," said Skehan.

The storm hit New Orleans on Monday morning, and the situation worsened after part of its levee system broke Tuesday, leaving most of the city underwater and tens of thousands of people stranded.

On Thursday morning, as looters and people in desperate straits began encroaching on and near the property, Skehan said, "we got a frantic call that there was gunfire all around." All seven members of the security team were eventually airlifted by helicopter to the New Orleans airport at about noon to escape the precarious situation.

Skehan said that CDI has made the approximately 500 people employed at Fair Grounds and its 10 affiliated off-track betting outlets in Louisiana "our main priority." A telephone hotline (877 244-5536) has been established to attempt to ensure that employees are paid in a timely fashion. Skehan said employees will continue to be paid for "at least a month," after which "we need to see what the government will step in and do."

Meeker said only about 30 percent of the year-round employees had contacted the company through the hotline or other means as of Friday.

Skehan said a way to compensate the 400 or so additional seasonal employees who work only during the live Fair Grounds meet will be determined at a later date, reiterating the company's position to await word from the government regarding emergency assistance.

Meeker said the company is grateful to Bob Bork, president of Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, for reaching out to CDI. Many New Orleans refugees are in the process of being moved to the Houston area. Meeker said Sam Houston is "establishing an onsite presence in the community that will provide a point of contact for us and our employees. [Bork has] also offered to provide temporary work for our employees in that market."

Also, Skehan said Frank Stronach of Magna Entertainment, which owns Lone Star Park in Dallas, had phoned CDI to say that "whatever Lone Star can do, let us know."

Separate fund-raising efforts to assist Hurricane Katrina victims have been launched by numerous racing entities, including the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Louisiana Downs, Evangeline Downs, Del Mar, and the New York Racing Association.

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini and Mike Welsch