Conditions at Fair Grounds irk legislators; bill advances

From a broken Jumbotron to overgrown grass to a sometimes unusable turf course, horse racing enthusiasts ticked off their complaints Wednesday about the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

State Reps. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, and Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, blamed the facility’s owner, Churchill Downs, and accused the Kentucky company of spending profits from the facility’s slot machines on out-of-state investments.

They said the whole idea behind allowing slot machines at the racetrack was to help finance the local horse facility.

“We thought it was going to be a great thing, but slowly things have deteriorated,” Connick told the Louisiana House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice.

The solution offered by Connick and Moreno through House Bill 1223 is to dedicate a portion of the slot machine revenue to upkeep at the facility’s horse racing component.

Ten percent of Churchill Downs’ local profits would need to be used for capital improvements and maintenance.

Churchill Downs officials fought back, arguing they saved the Fair Grounds from bankruptcy, invested millions into the facility and now face a depression in the racing industry.

The senior vice president of gaming operations for Churchill, Austin Miller, criticized Connick for complaining about the closure of an oyster booth at the Fair Grounds. He said Connick is missing the real issue.

“We need to focus our attention not on emotional issues of (video) boards and what foods are available … but the fact that racing is losing its popularity,” Miller said.

The committee dismissed Miller’s objections and advanced HB1223 to the Louisiana House floor.

In 2003, Fair Grounds officials pushed legislators to authorize slot machines at the track. Delta Downs in Vinton already had slot machines and was increasing its purses.

Legislators eventually agreed to expand gambling at the New Orleans racetrack amid concerns that racing otherwise would be scaled down.

Churchill Downs bought the Fair Grounds in 2004. A decade later, horse owners, trainers and legislators are unhappy with the track’s conditions.

The turf course is a particular source of frustration. Drainage issues following rainstorms often require races to be canceled or moved. Horses not adept at racing on a dirt track refuse to run.

Churchill is not reinvesting in the product, said Stanley Seelig, president of the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

He said the company made a decision not to invest in the horse racing side of its operation.

“All they’re concerned about is the numbers they report each quarter to Wall Street,” Seelig said.

Moreno complained the Jumbotron has been broken for two years because Churchill Downs refused to pay the $200,000 necessary to get it fixed.

Meanwhile, the company’s Kentucky racetrack — home to the Kentucky Derby — boasts a $12 million video board. The board weighs more than 1 million pounds and is bigger than three NBA basketball courts.

“What we’re looking to do is do what Churchill Downs said it would do,” Moreno said, later adding that she’s not asking for a $12 million screen at the Fair Grounds.

Flanked by a lobbyist and another company official, Miller sat before legislators and apologized for not doing a better job of telling his company’s story. He said Churchill Downs has invested $87 million in capital at the Fair Grounds and generated $250 million in purse money for horsemen.

He said the Jumbotron remains broken because not enough people are standing on the apron looking at it. He said 95 percent of the Fair Grounds’ business happens somewhere else.

“Racing is in the midst of a depression,” Miller said.