06/18/2014 2:27PM

Turf Sprint positioned as marquee event

Coady Photography
Heitai will make his second career start on grass in the Evangeline Downs Turf Sprint at Evangeline Downs.

Back in 2002, the Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming created the Delta Downs Jackpot to raise the profile of the Vinton, La., track it recently had purchased. The race for 2-year-olds has grown in value from $500,000 to $1 million, been awarded Grade 3 status, and annually leads a card of stakes that time and again has produced record handle figures for Delta.

Boyd Gaming is putting that same business model into motion Saturday at Evangeline Downs. The company acquired the Opelousas, La., track in 2012 and soon afterward set a goal of creating a standout race for the facility. The result is the inaugural $300,000 Evangeline Downs Turf Sprint, which will be showcased as part of a program of five stakes worth $640,000.

The Turf Sprint is for 3-year-olds and up at five furlongs, and it is one of the richest offerings of its kind in North America. The field of 10 includes graded stakes winners Gantry, Sum of the Parts, Lemon Drop Dream, and Berlino Di Tiger. Adding further depth is Heitai, the Louisiana-bred flash seeking his third straight stakes win.

“Boyd Gaming, they were trying to create a niche race, something to give the track a marquee race, kind of like the Jackpot,” said Chris Warren, director of racing for both Evangeline and Delta. “They wanted to draw some heavy hitters.”

[Evangeline Turf Sprint: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Officials hope the Turf Sprint one day will land the 49-year-old Evangeline Downs its first graded stakes for Thoroughbreds. It is being supported by an equally strong $100,000 Evangeline Mile, which drew Grade 3 winners Grand Contender and Called To Serve, as well as the top-class Louisiana-bred Sunbean. In addition, the $100,000 Opelousas for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on turf lured the Grade 3 winner Class Included, the Santa Anita stakes winner I Dazzle, and the multiple stakes winner Sister Ginger.

Evangeline will package the $70,000 Acadiana, the Opelousas, the Evangeline Mile, and the Evangeline Turf Sprint into a pick four that has a $100,000-guaranteed pool. The bet, which has a 50-cent minimum, runs on races 5-8. The Turf Sprint will go as the eighth at 7:28 p.m. Central. Evangeline has set a special first post of 3:50 p.m.

“Day racing is more popular, and we were trying to find a spot where enough people in the country could see the race,” Warren said. “It’s not too late for the East Coast, and it’s not too early for the West Coast.”

Boyd, which also runs its Jackpot on a special afternoon program, has lined up Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron as an ambassador of sorts for the Turf Sprint. He will be on hand to meet with fans Saturday at Evangeline. Warren said the night’s stakes are scheduled to be broadcast on HRTV and TVG. There also will be live streaming video of the 11-race card at drf.com. A Sirius XM radio program co-hosted by Bill Finley also will be broadcasting live from Evangeline.

On the track, Heitai, a winner of six of his last seven starts, will be making his second career start on grass in the Turf Sprint. He won the local prep for the race, the $60,000 Need for Speed Stakes, on May 3.

“I think he was a little tentative in the first race over [the turf], but with the way he strides out, I think he’s going to be just fine over the grass,” said Karl Broberg, who trains Heitai for Rowell Enterprises. “When your only win on the turf is a stakes win, chances are you’re going to be okay over it.”

Broberg, the leading trainer at Evangeline, also will send out the multiple stakes-winning filly Snappy Girl. She will be seeking her fourth straight win when she starts in the Turf Sprint.

“She’s earned a chance,” Broberg said. “You don’t get too many opportunities like this. She loves the turf, loves sprinting.”

The Weather Channel’s forecast for Saturday is a high of 94 degrees and a low of 70, with a 20 percent chance of precipitation in Opelousas.