Fair Grounds dispute has deal on the table

The threat of legislative action appears to have facilitated an at-least temporary settlement between the state’s horsemen and the corporate owners of the Fair Grounds.

“Apparently an understanding has been reached that satisfies everybody,” Bob Wright, acting chairman of the Louisiana Racing Commission said Monday night. “I haven’t seen the details of it, but I am going on the fact that everybody is working together to come up with an equitable solution.

“I don’t think anybody wanted to see this strung out too much longer.”

Over the weekend, Churchill Downs Inc. submitted a proposal that will be unveiled by Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant at Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee. The committee is considering a bill by Patrick Connick (R-Marrero) that would force CDI to dedicate 10 percent of its slots revenue to improvements to the Gentilly facility.

Other pending bills would reduce the licensing period to one year and give the Louisiana Racing Commission more authority over the licenses.

Connick said Monday that if CDI’s latest proposal gains the approval of the commission and the Louisiana Horsemen’s Protective and Benevolent Association, he would then withdraw his bill, which passed the House 94-0 last month, and the others will not be pursued as well.

“We’re going to listen to everyone,” Connick said. “But it looks like the Fair Grounds folks have had a change of heart.

“There are still some questions to be answered though.”

According to Connick, CDI’s proposal is much like the one presented last week to the racing commission that gave CDI a conditional renewal of its 10-year rolling license.

The major change is to put fewer conditions on spending the whole $600,000 to replace the drainage for the much-criticized turf track. CDI also said it would replace both the infield and paddock video screens and have a live bugler on weekends.

Other upgrades promised by CDI are to replace the TVs in the 11 off-track betting parlors owned by the company based in Louisville, Kentucky, in addition to the Fair Grounds; more live tellers on the busy days; more marketing focused on racing; and another $100,000 for improvements to the barn area.

At last week’s meeting, Bryant said the upgrades would be for about $1 million over the next two years in addition to normal maintenance.

“We’ve made our best good-faith proposal,” Bryant said, “I think all of us want to see this end to the betterment of the Fair Grounds and for the horsemen.”

Former LHPBA president Stanley Seelig, who is representing the organization in its dealings with CDI and the legislature, remained somewhat skeptical.

“I haven’t gone through it line-by-line,” he said. “But I have concerns about some of the language.

“What we’re looking for is full commitment to the turf course, not just doing it in bits and pieces. Overall, it looks like a promising step in the right direction.”

Along with Connick, Rep. Helena Moreno (D-New Orleans) and Sen. Edwin Murray (D-New Orleans), in whose districts the Fair Grounds is located, have become heavily involved in the negotiations.

But Connick said the legislature should not have had to get involved to begin with, adding, “Unfortunately, it took it coming to this to get the people in Kentucky to pay attention to this.

“And we’re going to do whatever it takes to make this facility first class. That means making sure they (CDI) honor their promises.”