03/10/2009 11:00PM

Slots help keep purses stable

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NEW ORLEANS - A herpes quarantine in December, a spike of morning breakdowns in January, and a global economic crisis - through it all, Fair Grounds has been able to maintain its lofty 2008-2009 purse structure, and on the eve of Louisiana Derby Day, the meet highlight, track officials are satisfied with the ongoing season.

"Everyone is pleased where we're at, based on what we projected at the beginning of the meet," said Eric Halstrom, who has had an eventful first season as Fair Grounds vice president and general manager of racing. "We added six more days of racing this year, and purses are still going to be around $355,000 a day, up from $335,000 a day last year."

Fair Grounds's new slots parlor, which houses 606 machines and opened in November, has helped maintain the purse structure. Last week, Fair Grounds increased the earnings from slot machines dedicated to purses from $3,500 per race to $5,500 per race. The slots money offset downward handle trends during February. Fair Grounds went into the month with moderate declines in total and average daily handle compared with the 2007-2008 season, but saw total handle fall by 17 percent in February compared with the same month last year, according to handle figures supplied by the Louisiana State Racing Commission. (Churchill Downs Inc., Fair Grounds' parent company, does not release handle statistics.)

Slot machines, meanwhile, have exceeded projected revenues, according to Halstrom.

"The bright spot of the meet is these purses levels, and that's driving how we're able to sustain these purses," he said.

The December herpes quarantine cost the track momentum, but wound up being short-lived and minor. In mid-January, seven horses suffered fatal breakdowns during morning training in a 10-day period, but as quickly as the breakdowns spiked, they disappeared, and since Jan. 27, Halstrom said he knew of only one morning fatality, that from a heart attack.

"We're all still scratching our heads over that rough patch of time," said Halstrom.

Nevertheless, Halstrom said Fair Grounds was committed to making off-season improvements to both the main track and the turf course. The main track has seen its composition change over time, and tons of sand will be added to the mixture after the meet ends. Michael Depew, an agronomist, is working with trackman Brian Jabelmann on the project.

Halstrom said Fair Grounds also will work to improve the grass course.

"Coming into the meet, we had irrigation troubles, and the turf wasn't where we wanted it to be at the beginning of the meet," Halstrom said. "Through the summer, Brian has a list of things he wants to do; sod, new seed. We're also going to overhaul the drainage system. I think the turf course will be in much better shape for the next meet than it was coming into this one."

Asmussen: More horses, less ammo

When trainer Steve Asmussen sent out Pyro in last year's Louisiana Derby, he had the horse to beat, and no one beat him. This year, the barn is sending out both Soul Warrior and Uno Mas, who will be outsiders in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby on Saturday.

Uno Mas, 12-1 on the morning line set by Mike Diliberto, finished third in last month's Risen Star, the prep for the Louisiana Derby. He has lost two straight to Friesan Fire, the Louisiana Derby's morning-line favorite, but defeated Friesan Fire earlier this meet.

"We've done well in this race over the years by just being in rhythm with horses like Uno Mas," Scott Blasi, Asmussen's assistant, said Wednesday morning. "Numbers-wise, he fits well in this race. If he gets a good trip, hopefully he'll have something to say about it."

Soul Warrior finished sixth in the Risen Star, in only his third lifetime start, but had a dreadful trip in which he got stopped while making a mid-race move down the backstretch. He is 20-1 on the morning line.

"He got a lot farther back than I thought he would be last time, and then he got in trouble so many times, down the backstretch and then again into the far turn," Blasi said. "I do think he's got some quality."

Shaun Bridgmohan, who rode Soul Warrior in his first two starts, is back aboard, replacing Patrick Valenzuela.

Asmussen has won the Louisiana Derby twice, including Fifty Stars in 2001.

Pessin, Block work well as team

Giant Oak, who is the third choice on the Louisiana Derby morning line following a nightmarish trip in the Risen Star, has been stabled here all winter, but his trainer, Chris Block, has been shuttling between New Orleans and his home base of Chicago. When Block is away, trainer Neil Pessin has been babysitting the oversized colt.

"We just got to be good friends in Chicago, talking on the apron in the mornings during training," Pessin said Wednesday. "He started sending me horses here the last couple of years."

Block has four horses with Pessin at Fair Grounds, and Pessin has his own four horses to train, too.

On Wednesday, Giant Oak jogged, visited the starting gate for a schooling session, and then galloped.

"He's a good-feeling horse, but he's not high strung," Pessin said. "He does everything well."

- additional reporting by Jay Privman