Panel pleased by Fair Grounds progress

The physical improvements promised by Churchill Downs Inc. to the Fair Grounds’ physical facilities, along with the ownership group’s relationship with the state’s horse racing community, appear to be on the right track.

“It seems as though Churchill Downs has gotten the message that their obligation is to put money back into horse racing even over and above their statutory obligations towards purses,” LSRC Executive Director Charlie Gardiner said after a Louisiana Racing Commission meeting Monday. “In every area of the four that were identified by the commission as commitments, we’ve seen significant improvements, so I think the commission is very satisfied to date and that we’ll have a much better product in the upcoming season.”

Officials from CDI, the parent company of the Fair Grounds, told the commission in an April meeting that it would pump money into the actual racing side of the operation in an effort to dispel concerns that CDI has let the track fall into disrepair and that its focus has been on slots and video poker.

During his mandated progress report Monday, Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant said that CDI is spending more than $1 million on the improvements, and outlined exactly how it benefits the track’s turf circuit, customer service, marketing objectives and video presentation.

The vast majority of the funds — about $725,000 — have been allocated to fixing a turf track that has seen several canceled races because of drainage problems.

Bryant said $56,000 has been spent in the past two months, and another $575,000 will be spent before the planned completion date of Oct. 4, when thoroughbreds will begin to arrive in anticipation of their meet kicking off Nov. 21.

Louisiana firms Fleming Construction and Providence Engineering are handling the project.

“Fleming came in and mobilized equipment last week and started doing camera work and started vacuuming out the existing lines. And today, they started mobilizing larger equipment so they can start trenching out for the 8-inch sock pipe,” Bryant said.

Architect John Stewart said there was one break found in the existing system so far, and that the new sock pipes, which are covered in a fabric that keeps dirt out, will constitute an entirely new system. Also, contractors are removing a concrete wall bordering the track that was intended to protect the irrigation system but also kept water from reaching drainage pipes.

“When this new piping goes in and it is tied into the existing system, we’ll have more than adequate drainage for the turf track,” Stewart said.

On the customer service side, Bryant said more tellers will be available at the grounds and OTB locations to take wagers and cash out at the end of race days. New promotions such as themed parties at select OTBs monthly have been received well, he said.

They’ve also added 254 small flat panel screens at the Kenner, Elmwood, Metairie and LaPlace locations, and anticipate another 64 being added to the Gretna OTB.

In terms of getting the word out, Bryant said CDI will increase marketing spending by $174,000, about one-third of last year’s expenditure.

“You’re going to see us more, hear from us more and read about as more,” Bryant said. “You’re not going to see a commercial during the live meet that doesn’t indicate we have live racing going on.”

An additional $300,000 will have gone into replacing the video board that has been out of order for two years. Two panels, capable of handling live and canned video, live feeds from other tracks, instant replays and advertisements will grace the tote board and the paddock area come race day.

“The entire system comes standard with a five-year warranty, and the track is considering extending that warranty. So they’re making a huge investment in this system,” said Steve Coogan, owner of Coogan & Coogan, a local distributor of the boards.

The state of the horse’s stabling also has drawn concerns. Several members of the commission and the Louisiana Horsemen Benevolent and Protective Association took a tour of the back side recently, and Kevin Delahoussaye, chairman of a joint committee of the two entities, spoke up at Monday’s meeting to mention improvements he noticed, including pressure-washed stalls, new dirt in shed rooms and replaced rotwood.

“I have to say hats off to you guys,” Delahoussaye said. “There’s been numerous improvements, so the horsemen, I think, will be very pleased. … Just for the audience to note, the Fair Grounds is doing what they said they were going to do and what we asked them to do, so I thank y’all for cooperating.”

Lafayette attorney Bob Wright, who was officially announced as LSRC chairman at the start of the meeting, said afterward that his concerns that the racing portion of the business was being neglected for the slot machines have been alleviated by the way the Fair Grounds has proceeded since April.

“I have every reason to believe that Churchill is going to do what they’ve committed to do,” Bryant said.

It was not all good news coming out of the meeting however. To conclude his up-to-that-point well-received presentation, Bryant deflated the room somewhat when he mentioned “an issue that could and likely will impact purse money for this upcoming meet.”

On April 21, a group of quarter horsemen named CDI in a class-action lawsuit claiming money made from video poker in the month of August since 2008 that has funded thoroughbred purses is owed to them.

“The Fair Grounds strongly disagrees with the quarter horsemen’s legal position and even their right to bring the suit,” Bryant said. “However, unfortunately, if this issue is not resolved prior to the thoroughbred meet, Fair Grounds will not be able to use these funds for purses and will have to place these funds in the registry of the court or otherwise hold these funds until the court tells us what to do with it.

“We anticipate this will result in the reduction of over 20 percent of the purses paid last year.”

Racing Commission attorney Rhea Loney discouraged commission members from commenting. Wright and Louisiana Quarter Horse Association Breeders Association Executive Director Tony Patterson declined to comment and distanced their respective organizations from the situation.

CDI declined to comment further due to the litigation’s status as pending.

One player did comment, though. After expressing his opposition on a separate issue further along in the agenda, LHBPA Vice President Arthur Morrell seemed to come to the defense of CDI.

“Every piece of legislation that we’ve introduced for the legislature, and this is an FYI, if it didn’t include the word quarter horse or quarter-horse purses, it didn’t pertain to them,” Morrell said. “(These) apply to thoroughbred racing. I’m an authority on it. I can tell you that because I made sure that quarter horse is a different situation all together.”