Trainer Dallas Stewart watches television coverage of Hurricane Katrina in his tack room at Saratoga.

Trainer Dallas Stewart watches television coverage of Hurricane Katrina in his tack room at Saratoga.

Skip Dickstein

Horsemen Consider Options in Light of Fair Grounds Damage

By Evan Hammonds, Ron Mitchell,
Dan Liebman

Although there has been no official announcement from parent company Churchill Downs Inc., it is highly unlikely the 2005 meet at Fair Grounds will be held at the New Orleans track as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Aerial views of the track shown on WWL television showed the track's racing surface submerged in water and part of the roof was damaged. Adding to the uncertainty over the meet, scheduled to open Nov. 24, and run through March 26, 2006, are the effects of the hurricane on Fair Grounds' personnel and the entire south Louisiana region.

If Fair Grounds is not available for live racing this year, there are a number of alternatives available to CDI, Fair Grounds, and horsemen, including the possibility of the Fair Grounds dates being run at another Louisiana track. Horsemen who traditionally race at Fair Grounds would either race at the alternative track or have to find other venues for their stables.

Among the most likely tracks that would get horsemen who normally stable at Fair Grounds are Kentucky's Turfway Park, Florida's Tampa Bay Downs, and Texas' Sam Houston Park.

Trainer Neil Pessin, who is currently stabled at Arlington Park and has wintered at Fair Grounds the past 22 years, said, "I would thing the best case scenario is (for Churchill Downs) to lease either Evangeline or Louisiana Downs. I'm not sure where I would go. The options for (many) people are Tampa, Turfway, and some that are here at Arlington may just stay in Chicago."

Trainer Dallas Stewart, who had a home in New Orleans that was destroyed by the hurricane but owns another home in Louisville, Ky., said his plans for fall racing are unknown.

"It is just a matter of putting everything back together," said Stewart, noting that the hurricane destroyed 10 homes owned by members of his family. Stewart said his brother and sister, both of whom were uprooted by the hurricane, will relocate to Kentucky and seek jobs there.

Because there are usually different groups of horsemen at the track in the fall and winter, Turfway Park allocates stalls twice, according to Rick Leigh, racing secretary at Turfway Park.

Some horsemen who participate in the fall meet that opens Sept. 7, usually head to the Fair Grounds. Leigh said he had not talked those horsemen since the hurricane hit earlier this week, but realizes some of them may want to remain at Turfway for the winter.

"I know guys like Dallas Stewart, Mike Stidham, and David Carroll usually go from here down to Fair Grounds, but I haven't talked to them yet," Leigh said. "They have stalls now (for the fall meet) and they may want to stay. We'll try to accommodate them, but we have a pretty small barn area, just 900 stalls."

One horseman who would probably remain in Illinois and take some time off is Richard Scherer, who owns a condominium in Metarie, Louisiana that was damaged by flood water from the hurricane.

"I will probably just stay at Hawthorne and turn some of my horses out and maybe even take a month off myself," said Scherer, adding a majority of the horses in his stable race on turf.

Eric Johnston, racing secretary at Sam Houston Race Park, said some horsemen will make their decision on where to race based on which Louisiana track -- Evangeline Downs or Louisiana Downs -- gets the Fair Grounds dates. But he expects Sam Houston will get some Fair Grounds stables.

"What I can see here is that I think our quality (of racing) will go up," Johnston said of the Thoroughbred meet that begins in October. "We usually get a lot of Louisiana horsemen anyway. The wild card is what will happen with the Louisiana-bred money."

Johnston said Sam Houston's 1,134 stalls are filled presently with Quarter Horses.

Horsemen considering Tampa Bay as a possible alternative to Fair Grounds may not fare well, according to Peter Berube, the track's general manager.

"Our stall applications are going out this week and aren't due until the end of September," said Berube, adding, "we get a lot more applications than we have stalls for. We have 1,420 stalls and we usually get 2,500 applications anyway. I can't displace people that have been coming here for years with someone else. It's a fluid situation right now, but we all may be looking at things differently later."