Morning workouts at the Fair Grounds in anticipation of the Thanksgiving Day reopening of the fabled New Orleans race course.

Morning workouts at the Fair Grounds in anticipation of the Thanksgiving Day reopening of the fabled New Orleans race course.

Skip Dickstein

Rebuilding Signals Growth for Fair Grounds

(from Fair Grounds report)
Of all the challenges that Fair Grounds president Randy Soth has faced over a 25-year career in Thoroughbred racing, none has equaled the experience of rebuilding the New Orleans track following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Soth, who was named president of Fair Grounds in October 2004, was preparing for his second meet at the Fair Grounds when Hurricane Katrina stormed along her path of destruction in New Orleans and left the racetrack in shambles.

Soth's career had prepared him for a variety of racetrack issues. He has worked as general manager of Retama Park in San Antonio, vice president of racing at Sam Houston Race Park, and racing secretary for four New Jersey racetracks: Monmouth Park, Atlantic City Racetrack, Garden State Park, and The Meadowlands. He also was general manager of Calder Race Course in Miami.

With a management team strengthened by its learning experiences at Fair Grounds, Soth now looks forward to the opening of the track Thursday and showcasing the efforts of his staff and the contractors that worked so hard to rebuild the facility.

"There has not been one particular challenge that stands out in our rebuilding process," said Soth. "The greatest challenge has been dealing with multiple major projects running concurrently.

"I think we have a chance to have the greatest meet in our history. Our customers are going to see a much improved Fair Grounds than the last time they were here. We have installed 600 flat-screen TVs, new flooring throughout the building, and new furnishings and millwork in the clubhouse. The horsemen are excited about the improvements to the barn area, the condition of the racing surface, and our purse structure."

Soth appreciates that the reopening of the track is a milestone in the overall rebirth of New Orleans.

"I know there are people throughout our city who are still trying to get back to their homes or finish rebuilding, and many of them have enjoyed coming to the Fair Grounds," he said. "Things are far from being back to normal, but I hope--by live racing coming back to the Fair Grounds this season--we can help New Orleans take one more small step back towards normalcy."

Almost immediately after the hurricane, Soth and his management team began the rebuilding process. The first step was to ensure the safety and well being of Fair Grounds employees – those who worked on the track, as well as those who were employed at the OTB sites throughout southeast Louisiana. An employee hotline was set up for employees to contact Churchill Downs Incorporated for human resources and payroll issues.

The team next set upon a full evaluation of the damages to Fair Grounds and its OTB network. Next up, the scheduled 2005-06 race meet had to be relocated, and an abbreviated meet was arranged to be hosted at Harrah's Louisiana Downs in Bossier City - more than 300 miles away. The 2005-06 meet required legislative and horsemen approval, but was successfully held at Harrah's.

Plans were then developed and executed to secure the reopening of the track's least damaged OTB facilities. Although the primary concern was the eventual reopening of Fair Grounds, other projects were also quickly added to the agenda.

At the forefront of those projects was the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a major economic engine for the community. Jazz Fest is annually held at Fair Grounds, and its return was viewed as a beginning of the return of the city itself.

At the conclusion of Jazz Fest in early May, Soth and his team set out to completely reconstruct the remaining damaged areas of the facility. The timetable left only six months to complete the rebuilding before the opening of the 2006-07 Fair Grounds racing season. A rapid timetable followed as the pace quickened with a series of construction projects and, by early August, the OTB facility at Fair Grounds was reopened.

The most pivotal of all the projects was completed with the reopening of the barn area on Nov. 1 and the return of the horses to the backside.

"I don't know that I can single out one thing, other than to say that we are where we are today because of our staff," said Soth. "They've been tireless in trying to get this facility ready to go for Thanksgiving Day, and I can't begin to thank them enough for their efforts. A number of our staff members had their own issues after the storm, and in some cases, they're still trying to put their homes back together."