05/20/2005 12:00AM

Reaction to long hiatus: 'This just hurts everybody'

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The fallout continues at Evangeline Downs as horsemen and track officials attempt to deal with the Wednesday announcement that racing will be suspended until June 30 while repairs are made to the racing surface.

Evangeline Downs, located in Opelousas, La., is in the midst of its inaugural Thoroughbred meet after relocating from its former location in Carencro. The new Evangeline Downs is home to both a racetrack and a casino.

Racing came to a halt after the jockeys refused to ride following the sixth race on May 12, citing an unsafe racing surface, specifically an inconsistency in the track base. Racing was originally scheduled to resume Thursday, but after meetings among horsemen, the Jockeys' Guild, the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and the state Racing Commission, the return was moved back to allow for a much more extensive overhaul of the track.

"This just hurts everybody," said Keith Bourgeois, the meet's leading trainer. "Owners, trainers, local businesses that depend on the track, nobody is going to win with this situation.

"We can ship up to run at Louisiana Downs in Shreveport," added Bourgeois, "but we have to haul up there and these horses do not have preference dates to even get in if those races overfill."

That situation was addressed immediately by many outfits, as between 400 and 500 sets of foal papers from Evangeline had arrived at Louisiana Downs by Friday morning. Horses must have their papers on file in the racing office to get a preference date. The better, or less current, the date, the more chance a horse has of drawing in.

Bourgeois went on to say that, in his opinion, the severity of the problem with the surface might have been overstated.

"I probably started more horses here than anyone, and I trained over this surface every day," he said. "I can honestly say I didn't have any major problems. It may have been a little hard at night when we raced and it did not handle rain very well, but it was okay in the mornings, and we approached management about getting the kind of surface we train over in place at night. This just seems like a drastic measure."

David Yount, executive director of racing operations at Evangeline, shared that sentiment.

"This is not something that we really wanted to do," Yount said. "We removed the cushion and did not find any problems with the base other than some variations, but what can you do when some horsemen and the jockeys refuse to race? This project is going to cost an estimated $1.5 million, and that is not even taking into consideration the lost revenue during the down time. Since we are going to do this, we are going to do it right so there will not be any problems in the future."

Management is bringing in heavy artillery to oversee the project and has retained the services of noted track superintendent Dennis Moore, who has served as an adviser or developer at racetracks and training facilities throughout North America, including Sam Houston Race Park, Remington Park, Lone Star Park, Ruidoso Downs, San Luis Rey Downs, and The Woodlands.

In an attempt to help ease the inconvenience to horsemen, track management has tentatively offered to pay the stall rent or workout fees for stables relocating to the old Evangeline Downs, which held its final live race meeting last fall. Located 15 miles to the south, the old plant continues to serve as a training facility.

"We are trying to put that together," Yount said Thursday evening. "We are awaiting some prices and will know something soon."

The irony of moving back to the old Evangeline Downs, at least temporarily, was not lost on veteran trainer Troy Young.

"I remember coming to that backside when I was a 6-year-old kid back in the 60's," Young said. "My dad was leading trainer there several times. The racing surface was the best in the state. It is a shame that they could not bring that track with them when they built the new one."

When racing does return to Evangeline Downs, plans are to make up the lost racing days by going to a five-day week, instead of four, and to extend the traditional Labor Day closing to later in the month of September.