James Gill: Fair Grounds not what it used to be

Horseracing people tend to look on the bright side, else they wouldn’t stay in the game, but not one of them has a good word for the Fair Grounds in New Orleans these days.

Owners, trainers and railbirds are deserting what was supposed to become the premier winter racetrack when Churchill Downs bought it in 2004, but it has been all downhill since then.

Chronically short fields make for dull racing, customer service is a foreign concept, purses have been slashed and signs of neglect are everywhere from the dilapidated back stretch to the big TV screen near the finish line that quit working a few years ago.

Churchill Downs, meanwhile, reports record profits, partly on account of the millions it rakes in from the Fair Grounds slots, which the Legislature authorized for the express purpose of supporting the horse business in Louisiana.

Churchill Downs, as home to the Kentucky Derby, was assumed to be in favor of maintaining high quality racing at the Fair Grounds, which was established in 1872 and is the third oldest racetrack in America, after Saratoga and Pimlico. But Churchill Downs has preferred to take the Louisiana loot back to Louisville, and is so flush, as horse owner Harry Bruns told a legislative committee last week, that it has just signed on as sponsor of the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, although it owns no tracks in New York. Meanwhile at the Fair Grounds, chintzy management even laid off the bugler.

The committee unanimously passed a bill by Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, which would force Churchill Downs to invest 10 percent of its slots profits in track improvements. The bill is up for debate on the House floor today, and must be a cinch to pass. Legislators naturally will close ranks against out-of-staters who come here to take advantage. We never did cotton to that.

That broken TV is the most obvious symbol of the disdain in which the Fair Grounds is held. While Churchill Downs refuses to spend $200,000 to fix it, a humongous new screen is being installed for racegoers in Louisville at a cost of $12 million.

As for the sport to which Churchill Downs is supposedly dedicated, the dirt course in New Orleans is well rated by trainers. But the turf course is such a disaster that half the races written for it in the season just ended had to be transferred to the dirt, forcing countless runners to be scratched. The drainage is so poor that the course can stay out of commission for days after rain. Smart owners will stable their grass runners at, say, Gulf Stream, where the course is properly maintained.

Stanley Seelig, president of the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents owners and trainers, told the committee that Churchill Downs refuses to allow an inspection of the turf course and its drainage system. HBPA Director Keith Gee produced aerial maps showing that infield drainage ponds have been partially filled in since Churchill Downs took over and speculated that underground pipes are blocked or crushed.

Seelig said Austin Miller, Churchill’s vice president for gambling operations, blamed owners for short fields in races taken off the turf, arguing that, since all horses train on dirt, they could all just as well race on it. No wonder the Fair Ground sucks when senior management is so profoundly ignorant.

Miller told the committee the foal crop has dropped and racing is much less popular than it used to be. No dispute there; competition for the gambling dollar is intense these days. But last year, Gee pointed out, handle was down at only two tracks — the Fair Grounds and Calder in Florida. Calder has turned into a bit of a dump in recent years too, and I’ll leave you to guess who owns it.

Miller argued that businesses will steer clear of Louisiana if government starts telling them how to invest their profits. But oil and gas have been trying to scare us with similar claims for years, and by now we can recognize an empty threat.

Churchill Downs is subject to conditions because it is not competing in a free market in Louisiana, but separating citizens from their money under government license. Any company that could make so much easy money would be here in a jiffy.

Miller told the committee that Churchill Downs “saved the Fair Grounds from bankruptcy,” as though buying the track was a neighborly act. Horseracing people may tend to assume the best, but they know when they are being played for suckers.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.