by Greg Reinhart, HANA member
Located just off Interstate 49 in Opelousas, La., lies Evangeline Downs, which traditionally runs its Thoroughbred meet between April and September. Evangeline takes the number six spot in HANA’s first annual track rankings.
In terms of takeout score, Evangeline registers mid-pack. Horseplayers take advantage of value in win, place, show and exacta pools, which are slightly better than average. The rest of the exotics are near the middle and represent decent value. Wager variety was at the high end of the scale.
Evangeline’s high ranking can be attributed primarily to one factor - field size. No other track in North America can boast that it has more starters per race. In 2008, 8,743 horses started in 858 races, for a per-race field size of 10.19. This was an increase from the 2007 season.
"Field size is our niche," said director of racing Steve Darbonne. "We know horseplayers want big fields and we do our best. Our horse population is at a good level here for what we offer in terms of classes, and we hope this continues in 2009 and beyond."
Horseplayers responded to Evangeline by doing something that did not happen much in racing in 2008 - they bet more. The average nightly handle was more than $1.7 million, which is high enough for even a larger player to take advantage. This beat 2007’s record average handle figure, by more than 3%. Purses, which were fueled by alternative gaming, increased by more than 10.5%, adding to field quality.
"We are certainly proud of our  results, and are thankful for the support we’ve received from both horsemen and racing fans who have really embraced our exciting brand of racing with full and contentious fields," Darbonne said. "Not only did we show gains in our nightly handle and field size, but the quality of our product continues to improve."
In 2009, field quality might get a further boost with turf racing and ongoing improvements.
"Our seven furlong turf course with a 1 1/8th mile chute will be fully operational in 2009 and other improvements are also in the planning stages as we continue to strive to make Evangeline Downs Racetrack & Casino the best place to race and wager," Darbonne said.
Adding the turf course is something that could improve field size even more, as the new course can handle 12-horse fields. So far, Jarbonne believes that local horsemen will be happy with the set-up.
The 2009 meet, which begins April 8 and concludes Labor Day (Sept. 7) will feature 24 stakes races totaling $1.85 million in purses. With full fields and quality racing, HANA believes that Evangeline Downs is worth a look in 2009.
(Editor’s note: The views and rating system are expressly those of the bettors’ advocacy group Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA), and not affiliated with Blood-Horse Publications.)