The Fair Grounds will be staging fewer, but hopefully better and safer races on its turf course in the future.
That was the was principal message delivered to the Louisiana Racing Commission on Monday by track Vice-President and General Manager Eric Halstrom as he delivered a report on plans to correct problems that drew heavy criticism last season because of the turf’s deteriorating condition.
Several turf races, including stakes-level ones, had to be moved to the dirt track or canceled outright. The second-most racing days affected by rain in the past 20 years didn’t help the situation.
Halstrom said , “We’re coming off a tough year.”
Stanley Seelig, president of the Louisiana Horseman’s Benevolent Association, said that without major corrections, the quality of all racing at the track was threatened.
The immediate repairs will cost “in the low six figures,” according to Halstrom, who added that the reduction in turf races overall would be a permanent change.
“We’re going to write turf races for quality horses,” Halstrom said. “And if they don’t fill up, then we’ll open them for lesser horses.
“But people shouldn’t expect many of those races.’
The Fair Grounds has averaged 3½-4 turf races a day, due to their popularity with trainers and owners. Halstrom said that number will likely drop to 2½-3 per day.
Additionally, Halstrom said, work is ongoing to install a new, more robust strain of Bermuda grass and to repair the severe problems with the area closest to the rail.
There, a buildup of organic material over the years had rendered the ground gooey and spongy. That area is being completely replaced.
The repair work was recommended by Michael Peterson, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine who is executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.
“Horse racing’s a lot tougher on grass than football,” Peterson said. “But with new turf, better aeration, better monitoring of conditions, the Fair Grounds is perusing a good strategy.”
Trainer David Carroll, who has brought horses to the Fair Grounds for seven years, agreed.
“The condition of the turf course at the Fair Grounds has been a great selling point to owners to come here,” he said. “The last few years though, not so much.
“I know the weather was a major issue, but Churchill Downs (the owner of the Fair Grounds) is doing something to address the issues we’ve had with the turf.
“Last year was really frustrating, and the inside part of the track, which is where everybody wants to run, was dangerous. I’m delighted to hear they’re taking steps to correct it.”
But Seelig remained skeptical.
“They’ve brought in a man with a wonderful reputation, but I’ve still go to see the report,” he said. “If they do the things that are necessary, then we’ll be in good shape.
“But if they don’t, trainers and owners aren’t going to want to come to the Fair Grounds. The horse population is already down. If field sizes go down, less money is bet, which means less money for future purses. You’re into a vicious cycle.”
But Halstrom said that’s not going to happen.
“We’re not so hard-headed that we can’t change,” he said. “And we are doing the things which are in our control to make improvements.
“Actually, this has been a good exercise in reaffirming that we are an ‘A’ level winter race track.”
One major element, though, that contributed to the damage to the turf — two weekends of trampling during Jazz Fest — will not change.
“That’s not going anywhere,” Halstrom said. “People shouldn’t worry about that.”