04/13/2006 11:00PM

Racing to return to New Orleans this year

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Fair Grounds
The storm-damaged grandstand at Fair Grounds, seen here in February, has undergone extensive repairs, including the installation of a new roof late last month. The track is expected to host an 81-day meet beginning in November.

Barring an unforeseen setback, horse racing is returning to the beleaguered city of New Orleans this year. Fair Grounds Race Course announced Friday that it has submitted an application to the Louisiana State Racing Commission for an 81-day meet beginning this November, putting to rest months of speculation over the future of the historic track.

"Normally when I turn in a dates application it's pretty much a non-event, but due to circumstances it is an event this time," said Fair Grounds general manager Randy Soth.

Fair Grounds suffered significant damage from Hurricane Katrina, which struck about three months before the 2005-06 race meet was supposed to commence, and ruined the second season of the racetrack's operation since being acquired out of bankruptcy by Churchill Downs Inc. An agreement was reached, and special permission granted by the Louisiana legislature, for Fair Grounds to hold an abbreviated 37-day season at Louisiana Downs, but even while that meet was ongoing, the looming question was whether the real Fair Grounds was coming back.

The answer is yes, and the Louisiana State Racing Commission is expected to approve the Fair Grounds dates request, which begins with the track's traditional Thanksgiving Day opener Nov. 23 and continues to March 25. The commission's date awards meeting will be April 24.

"The commission has been urging this application and asking if there's been anything we can do to assist them in this," said LSRC executive director Charles Gardiner.

Progress has been made in putting Fair Grounds back together. Installation of a new roof on the grandstand was completed late last month, and power finally was restored to the main facility. Ten of the most severely damaged barns have been repaired, and another flurry of work will begin, Soth said, after the track has finished hosting the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which starts April 28. Barn repairs will continue, and $2 million in capital improvements also will be made to the backstretch. The Fair Grounds turf course, contaminated by salt from flooding, will be cleared of dead grass and replanted. Soth said several track superintendents had looked at the main track, and "everybody was happy with the condition it's in."

Construction of an ontrack slots facility, however, is on hold, probably for about a year, according to Soth. "Before we put money into the facility, we want to take a real good look at the repopulation and the customer base in the area," he said.

A new insurance policy, one of the impediments to the track's future, is in place, but costs about $1.2 million more than the old policy, with triple the deductible, Soth said.

Nevertheless, Fair Grounds could have a strong season. Many large stables are itching to return, and purse levels, according to Sean Alfortish, head of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, should be around $300,000 per day. Soth, while unwilling to predict the purse structure, said the purses "have a chance to be the highest ever at Fair Grounds." That level was $276,000 per day, in the 1999-2000 season.

Seven of Fair Grounds's offtrack-betting parlors have reopened, with brisk business that has helped fuel the purse account.

"I've always held the opinion that the track down here will be able, not only to sustain itself, but flourish," said Alfortish. "Now the fans and the people of the city have something to look forward to come Thanksgiving."

Concern remains about finding adequate employees for the meet and sufficient housing for the influx of horsemen and backstretch workers. Soth said Fair Grounds and the HBPA are "exploring just about every option we can think of to find housing," and said the HBPA had pledged "to do whatever they need to do to accommodate the horsemen."

Fair Grounds's return should mean something for a city still trying to regain a semblance of normalcy. Businesses have been slow to reopen, and while the New Orleans Saints are expected to play their regular season in the Louisiana Superdome, the New Orleans Hornets will spend much of next season at their temporary home in Oklahoma City. But at least the racetrack, a longtime fixture in the local sporting scene, is back.

"You figure a place that's been around for, what, our 135th year, you're pretty entrenched in the fiber of the community," Soth said. "We're basically part of the soul of New Orleans as far as the community goes, and I think this is a big step forward, and hopefully it's viewed upon as another positive step in the recovery process."