11/23/2010 3:27PM

Several changes should help Fair Grounds meet reverse course

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NEW ORLEANS – Fair Grounds, one assumes, has nowhere to go but up when its 2010-2011 racing season commences Thursday.

Average daily handle from all sources fell more than 11 percent in 2008-2009 compared to the previous season, but that decline was nothing compared to what happened during Fair Grounds’ most recent meeting. Business during the 2009-2010 meet was down 30 percent for much of the winter, and by meet’s end, average daily all-sources handle had dropped 20 percent even from those deflated 2008-2009 figures.

“There came a point where it was almost like a perfect storm of things last year,” said Fair Grounds vice president and general manager for racing, Eric Halstrom. “I think a lot will change this year.”

First among the changes? Opening day. Until 2008, Fair Grounds opened on Thanksgiving. The city of New Orleans knew it; so did horseplayers around the country. But two years ago, opening day was pushed back to Nov. 14, and last year, Fair Grounds launched on Nov. 6, when the Churchill Downs meet still was in full swing. Louisiana-bred races proliferated. A consortium of racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic states boycotted the Fair Grounds simulcast signal, and an historically wet December rained out day after day of turf racing. By the time the New Year rolled around, Fair Grounds was buried in the red. Purses were cut twice (the second cut affected only stakes), and even a strong rally in March could not get the track back above water.

“It was like a knockout punch early on,” said racing secretary Jason Boulet. “We tried to get back up, but we couldn’t come all the way back.”

The weather, Fair Grounds can’t control, but the later start date means Fair Grounds and Churchill only have three overlapping race days this year. There are about 450 empty stalls on the 1,838-stall backstretch this week, Boulet said, but those should soon be occupied by later arriving Kentucky outfits. Wayne Lukas’ string from last season is gone, but Mike Maker has 30 stalls here. Other 30-stall newcomers include Bob Young and Danny Pish.

Halstrom said 100 more non-Louisiana-bred horses will be stabled here than were last season, the idea being to cut back on the number of statebred-restricted races and bump up the open competition. To that end, Fair Grounds now allows winners of multiple Louisiana-bred allowance races into open first- and second- level allowance races; winners of Louisiana-bred stakes can still qualify for open third- and fourth-level allowances. Additionally, funds generated from racetrack slot machines in the state have been allocated for Louisiana-breds in open competition. An open maiden race, for instance, is worth $37,000 to a Kentucky-bred, but $45,000 to a Louisiana-bred.

Halstrom said Fair Grounds has expanded its tote board for this season, adding space for entry numbers 15 and 16. That will allow the track to accept up to four main-track-only entrants for turf races, which, considering the fact that 120 grass races were rained onto dirt last season, could boost field size on wet days. Also, Halstrom said Fair Grounds will permit up to 14 starters in six-furlong main-track races.

Purses are down from both the start and the end of last meet: that $37,000 maiden-special-weight pot was worth $45,000 last November, $39,000 in March. Those figures might be lower if not for favorable business at the slots parlor connected to the Fair Grounds grandstand.

“It’s conservative to start,” Halstrom said. “We’d like to be at a point at the end of the meet where we can raise purses.”

The stakes schedule is only modestly different than last year’s. The Fair Grounds Oaks no longer anchors a Friday card, and will be part of Louisiana Derby Day on Saturday, March 26. The purse for the local derby has been raised to $1 million for 2011. For now, most of the stakes races will be of the $60,000 variety, like the feature on opening day, the Thanksgiving Handicap.

Thanksgiving, of course, is a time for turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce – and Sok Sok. Sok Sok finished fourth in the 2009 Thanksgiving Handicap, but easily won the race in 2008, and has tallied three of his five career victories over the Fair Grounds main track. Sok Sok rides a 10-race losing streak into Thursday’s race, but his third-place finish in a five-furlong Delaware allowance race on Oct. 25 should be viewed as a Fair Grounds prep.

“We’ve been kind of pointing for the New Orleans meet for some time,” trainer Steve Asmussen said.

Mambo Galliano has never finished worse than second in four Fair Grounds starts. And though Foreign Production, the Thanksgiving morning-line favorite, was ninth last December in the Louisiana Champions Day Sprint, his strong Louisiana Downs form could carry over to Thursday’s race. Trainer Sweet Hodges said that Foreign Production had not yet been gelded at the time of his Champions Day flop; since then, he has won three of four.