Track of Dreams

By Tammy Thomas Curlin
When I read about Churchill Downs' reluctance to re-open Fair Grounds in New Orleans for live racing this year I was reminded of that famous line "If you build it, he will come" from the wonderful movie Field of Dreams.

Fair Grounds, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., sustained severe damage when Hurricane Katrina gouged the Gulf Coast region Aug. 29, 2005, and plunged the track's future into doubt.

Now the first anniversary nears and another hurricane season approaches.

Churchill cited three reasons for its hesitancy: insurance, finding about 200 employees to run the meet, and uncertainty as to whether the local economy could support the track. Another unspoken concern must be whether the financial investment will eventually pay for itself.

This is certainly not as simple as building a baseball diamond in a cornfield. But Churchill Downs hit a home run when it announced it will repair the historic structure by applying for a 2006-07 meet, thus reaching agreement with the insurance company.

The entire racing community should rejoice in the decision, for it bodes well not only for Louisiana horsemen, but for all of New Orleans and the state.

It is not only the racing industry that will reap the benefits. Construction companies are the most obvious beneficiaries, but electricians, architects, plumbers, bricklayers, engineers, decorators, painters, landscapers -- the list goes on and on -- will all have gainful employment.

As the Thanksgiving Day opening nears, support will flow in as well from feed, straw, and hay suppliers; food service; and security companies. The track maintenance staff, racing officials, accountants, office personnel, cleaning crews, mutuel clerks, and others necessary for operating a successful racetrack will return. And who could get along without a roomful of lawyers to negotiate the contracts among horsemen, insurance companies, jockeys, simulcast outlets, and others?

Trainers, grooms, hot walkers, jockeys, jockey agents, valets, and finally the most important -- the Thoroughbreds -- will arrive. The once vibrant Louisiana-bred program and the state's many breeders, owners, and stallion and boarding facilities will once again be fully operational. The farm owners hit so hard by human and equine tragedy, as well as loss of property, will begin rebuilding. Veterinariany clinics and pharmacies will thrive. Van companies will log many miles.

In the weeks leading up to the opening, excitement will grow -- airline, gasoline, and car rental companies will see an increase in business as horsemen, jockeys, and fans arrive and support local banks, hotels, apartments, and restaurants.

A field of dreams? Yes, and one that won't be built overnight. It will take years to restore Louisiana's racing and breeding industries to their heydays. But what a wonderful trickle-down effect for a state and city so in need of rejuvenation and escape from the horrible hurricane aftermath. While the reopening of Fair Grounds is a microcosm of the rebuilding picture in Louisiana and the surrounding states, it will do more than its share of stimulating the local economy. Thank you, Churchill Downs, for doing what not only was necessary, but right.

Now, all that is needed is for the fans to support Fair Grounds and, most assuredly they will. It won't be a new Fair Grounds, but it will be a better one. As the city continues rebuilding, the population is sure to increase and so will the fan base.

Churchill should load the bases with a gala-type atmosphere, great cards, giveaways, and publicity to let people know Fair Grounds is ready for business. What about hosting a "Fair Grounds post-Katrina Racing Festival" during opening week? Another idea is partnering with a local Thoroughbred retirement farm damaged by the hurricane and donating a percentage of gate receipts. What if the horsemen sponsored a local farm and helped with rebuilding fences or barns or donated feed and hay? The publicity alone would improve the track's image and more than likely increase total handle and attendance. If Churchill really wanted to put Fair Grounds on the cutting edge, it could push for installation of a synthetic surface, a decision that would also generate attention.

Maybe Churchill Downs didn't build it, but by fixing it, they most certainly will come.