Fair Grounds, being repaired due to damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Fair Grounds, being repaired due to damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Alexander Barkoff

Horsemen Adamant About Meet in New Orleans

As Churchill Downs Inc. continues to assess whether Fair Grounds will be ready to host its 2006-07 meet beginning in late November, the president of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association said anything less than a live meet in New Orleans would bring "strong opposition" from the organization.

Fair Grounds was damaged and New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005. The track's 2005-06 meet, which concluded Jan. 22, was moved to Harrah's Louisiana Downs in Bossier City.

Louisiana HBPA president Sean Alfortish said CDI is statutorily obligated to offer 80 racing days within 20 consecutive weeks in New Orleans. A waiver was granted for 2005-06 given the circumstances, but that won't be the case for 2006-07, he said.

"They're obligated to run (at Fair Grounds)," Alfortish said. "They may say otherwise, but that's not reality. Churchill Downs in my opinion has two options--it either runs the meet at Fair Grounds or it sells the track and somebody else runs the meet. I can think of no reason or rationale CDI could give that would change our position regarding that matter."

Julie Koenig Loignon, director of communications and investor relations for CDI, said the company bought Fair Grounds in the fall of 2004 because it was a "good strategic fit" for the company. She said despite the hurricane devastation, "it is our intention to continue doing business in New Orleans."

Koenig Loignon said CDI must first see how the local market is recovering, whether enough qualified workers would be available for a live meet, and whether the company could obtain adequate and affordable insurance. CDI also owns six off-track betting parlors in the New Orleans area, and is licensed to build a slot machine parlor at Fair Grounds.

"We know our employees, horsemen, business partners, neighbors, and government and civic leaders are very eager to know when the racetrack might reopen and if we'll be able to race in New Orleans during our traditional dates in 2006-07," Koenig Loignon said. "We know our horsemen are very eager for answers about the 2006-07 racing season. At the end of the day, we need to determine whether the community of New Orleans will be ready to host a full-race meet--not just Fair Grounds. We hope to have the information we need to make that determination before it's time to apply for race dates this spring."

CDI needs about 500 workers for a live meet, she said. The company has delayed reopening its OTB parlor in Kenner because it can't find 35 workers.

CDI also believes seasonal housing is a concern because any temporary housing is being used by displaced residents. Alfortish and other horsemen said they believe the racing community would adapt and find accommodations in nearby Jefferson Parish, which was spared the brunt of the hurricane.

"I'm not trying to be critical, but Churchill Downs needs to show a commitment to the city of New Orleans and let the community build around us," Alfortish said. "The (New Orleans) Saints will be playing in September, and there's no reason Fair Grounds can't be ready."

CDI is proceeding with plans to get Fair Grounds ready to host Jazz Fest this spring. Power to the grandstand/clubhouse should be restored when roof repairs are completed in March.