06/02/2003 11:00PM

Sagging business leads to first-ever purse cut

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - For the first time in its seven-year history, Lone Star Park is cutting overnight purses, with the approximately 9 percent reduction to begin Thursday night. The move reduces average daily purses at the meet to $220,000 from $240,000.

The adjustment is the result of slower than expected business. Ontrack, average daily handle on Lone Star's live races is down 8 percent to $583,000 through Sunday, while average daily attendance is off 6 percent to approximately 8,300.

Offtrack, average daily handle on Lone Star's races is down 8 percent to $2 million.

This is unusual territory for Lone Star. The decreases come after a strong 2002, when the track's daily averages increased in every category, said Jeff Greco, general manager of Lone Star.

"I think it's a combination of a soft economy, a competitive sports environment, and perhaps a reduction in the entertainment dollar," said Greco. "And more of our players than I would like to imagine have [offshore] accounts."

Handle on incoming simulcasts at Lone Star began to soften around November of last year, according to Greco. Officials were hopeful things would change, but then the war in Iraq began, and the national economy has since struggled to recover.

In the market surrounding Lone Star, the airline industry has suffered greatly this year, with American Airlines, one of the region's biggest employers, nearly going bankrupt.

And, it has not helped the track that both the Dallas Stars and the Dallas Mavericks advanced to post- season play this year, with the NBA Mavericks playing about a month longer than years past during the Western Conference finals.

There also was a lot of focus on the Colonial golf tournament, featuring Annika Sorenstam, in nearby Fort Worth.

"Everything that we're doing, as far as we can tell, are all the same things we've done in the past. We're just fighting through some less productive times," said Greco. "I sincerely do consider this a hiccup, or a bump in the road. I don't think this is a trend of anything larger."

The purse cut Thursday puts maiden special weight purses at $25,000, down from $27,000; allowance races at $34,000 from $38,000; and bottom $5,000 claimers at $6,500 from $7,000.

Along with the overnight purses, six stakes were reduced in value, with five of those being cut $25,000 each, and the other by $15,000.

Greco foresees no further reductions to either overnight purses or stakes at the meet. He added that there are reasons to believe things are on the rebound at Lone Star.

The average field size of 9.6 runners is up over last meet, and last week, handle on Lone Star's races offtrack was up 9 percent over the same week in 2002.

Expanding the reach of Lone Star's simulcast signal has been a top priority, and Greco said because the track now belongs to Magna Entertainment, races from here have gone more frequently into California.

And, in the last nine days, races from Lone Star have begun to be simulcast into New York OTB. It is the first time the track's races have gone to those outlets on a regular basis. Greco added Lone Star is going to more sites in Florida.

"We think that our racing is good for the [remaining] six, eight weeks," said Greco. "We've got a strong promotional calendar, with the potential Triple Crown with Funny Cide; honoring Laffit Pincay for the All-Star Jockey Championship; and the Dallas Turf Cup."

The Dallas Turf Cup, to be run June 21, will be televised nationally on CBS, said Greco.

He added that the track has decided to spread out its annual fireworks display for July 4 over two nights, with the idea of increasing attendance and handle.

The meet continues through July 13.

Allowance sprint on turf

Spiked Punch, third last out in an entry-level allowance at Churchill Downs, appears to be the class of the field in the featured eighth race, a five-furlong allowance on turf for fillies and mares. Eddie Martin Jr. has the mount for owner Tom Durant and trainer Jack Bruner.

Also in the race is Cool Spirit, who is the only runner in the field with a win on turf.