Churchill Downs vows to make improvements

Legislators pushing for improvements at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans are taking a short break.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary B deferred House Bill 1223 Tuesday for a week to give state Reps. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, and Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, a chance to work with Churchill Downs officials.

HB1223 would dedicate a portion of the slot machine revenue at the racetrack to upkeep at the facility’s horse racing component. Ten percent of owner Churchill Downs’ local profits would need to be used for capital improvements and maintenance.

Complaints about the horse racing facility range from a broken Jumbotron to a sometimes unusuable turf course. Drainage issues following rainstorms often require races to be canceled or moved.

Committee members told Tim Bryant, president of the Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots, that improvements are needed.

State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, said the historic track is a shell of what it used to be.

“What you’ve got at the Fairgrounds, something has got to happen. I don’t need a promise,” he said.

Another bill moving through the Legislature — House Bill 808 — would give the Louisiana Racing Commission the power to suspend Churchill Downs’ license if the track is not properly maintained.

Churchill recently promised to immediately spend $200,000 on the turf course.

Former state Rep. Arthur Morrell told legislators Tuesday that horse racing is a way of life for many people in Louisiana.

“Don’t let an industry disappear that’s been here for almost 200 years,” he said.

Bryant assured legislators that Churchill Downs, which owns the racetrack, is cognizant of the concerns. “We’ve been listening. I know that I certainly have. We’re going to make these improvements,” he said.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, warned Bryant that legislators aren’t the only body that can act to address conditions at the Fair Grounds. Morrell said the New Orleans City Council meets year-round.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/