05/18/2005 12:00AM

Racing suspended till June 30


OPELOUSAS, La. - Evangeline Downs suspended racing operations last Thursday because of an unsafe racing surface and had intended to reopen this week. Instead, the track will remain closed until June 30 in order to overhaul the surface.

"We are disappointed to have suspended racing on May 12 and thereafter," said Jonathan Swain, the track's chief operating officer, on Wednesday morning. "We evaluated both short-term and long-term solutions but believe it is in everyone's best interest to make repairs to ensure, without a question, the best possible permanent solution."

This is the first Thoroughbred meet to be held at the new Evangeline Downs facility, which also includes a casino. The former Evangeline Downs, which is located 15 miles away in Carencro, now operates as a training center.

An unusually high number of recent breakdowns came to a head May 12 when the jockeys refused to ride following the evening's sixth race. The surface at the new facility has been the subject of controversy since the track opened for its inaugural Quarter Horse meet in February. The original track superintendent has since been replaced and at least two programs had been canceled prior to last Thursday's suspension of racing.

"Immediately following the suspension of racing on May 12, we peeled the racetrack back to its foundation," Swain said. "We found the base to be solid and intact but also found variations in the levels of the base that must be corrected immediately.

"For the last 48 hours we have met with our consultants, industry experts, the Louisiana State Racing Commission, Louisiana HBPA, and the Jockeys' Guild to formulate a plan for correcting these issues. We are committed to apply the appropriate resources to create a permanent solution."

The extended cancellation leaves Evangeline-based horsemen without anywhere to race in southern Louisiana, and has resulted in trainers flocking to the only other track running in the state, Louisiana Downs in the northwest corner of the state.

"You have to really feel for the owners and trainers," said Pat Pope, the racing secretary at Louisiana Downs. "Many horsemen set up base down there and this situation really puts them in a pinch. It means they will be doing a lot more traveling in the near future."

Pope said that there are no plans to add either races or dates to help ease the overflow of entries there. "Right now we are committed to running a minimum of 10 races a day," he said. "We will look at mutuel handle issues along with feedback from horsemen to see if additional races are feasible."

It was not clear as of Wednesday afternoon whether Evangeline Downs would attempt to make up the lost racing dates. The meet, which opened April 7, is scheduled to continue through Labor Day, Sept. 5.

Sean Alfortish, president of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, met with Evangeline Downs officials on Tuesday evening to review the track's plans.

"While I am disappointed that racing has been suspended, I am encouraged that Evangeline Downs has made a commitment to improve the condition of the track," he said. "This will insure long-term stability for the horsemen and jockeys."

Evangeline officials were scheduled to meet with the Louisiana State Racing Commission on Wednesday afternoon to formally present their plan. That meeting was to be followed by an open forum for licensed horsemen and racing personnel.