The Big Muddy: Fair Grounds Turf Course ‘Broken’
The Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association is asking the Louisiana Racing Commission to conduct a review of the turf course at Fair Grounds racecourse in New Orleans, following a 2012-13 race season that saw numerous events taken off the turf and in the wake of an annual music festival that left the course a sea of mud.
Some, including former Fair Grounds owner Louie Roussel III, who had the turf course installed in 1981, have said Churchill Downs Inc. has neglected it since purchasing the track in 2004.
Eric Halstrom, vice president of racing and general manager of Fair Grounds, would not comment on the condition of the turf course or indicate what might be done during the off-season to prepare for the 2013-14 race meeting. In previous comments to Daily Racing Form, Halstrom said the drainage system is inspected annually and that necessary repairs are made.
Stanley Seelig, Louisiana HBPA president, in a letter to Louisiana Racing Commission chairman Jerry Meaux said: “As most of you are aware many races scheduled for the turf course this past season were taken off and run on the dirt track as the turf course had some drainage issues. I'm aware that the New Orleans area experienced more rain than normal this past season but at times races were taken off the turf three, four and five days after it rained.
“This is not a new problem and one that Fair Grounds has done a poor job of addressing over the last few years,” he continued. “I believe there are several reasons for the problems that include age, poor drainage due to sinking of the course and the additional wear of Jazz Fest.”
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a major attraction that brings huge crowds to the Fair Grounds annually. Multiple stages are set up in the track's infield, with people crossing over the turf course repeatedly. This year's festival, held April 25-May 4, was accompanied by a deluge that turned virtually every blade of infield grass to mud. Because the grounds were so muddy, the start of the May 3 concert schedule was delayed, with one longtime Jazz Fest patron saying it was the wettest it had ever been since the “drainage” was installed. “It's a muck pit,” he said.
The contract between Fair Grounds and Jazz Fest officials runs another two years with a third option year. Sources estimate CDI makes about $2 million annually as concessionaire for the event. Simulcasting and the slots parlor, from which horsemen benefit, are closed down for much of Jazz Fest, costing them considerable purse money.
The net result is that CDI makes money, horsemen lose money, and the turf course is severely damaged.
“There is no turf course, there's nothing there right now,” said trainer Tom Amoss, a New Orleans native who stables at Fair Grounds every winter. “This happens every year.”
But Amoss said the course is not draining like it used to, and it's hurting business.
“It's no secret the Fair Grounds turf course is bad,” he said. “It hurts everybody. It kills handle when races are taken off the turf and fields are small. It's a problem all sides need to have fixed.
“I live three miles from the track and right against a municipal golf course,” Amoss said. “That thing gets minimal care and there were many days we were off the grass, and the golf course was open with carts permitted. If a golf course with little or no attention and no real drainage has good grass, why can't a sophisticated drainage system get the turf course dry? We went eight days with no rain and yet races were called off the grass.
“Another day we were scheduled on turf, and it was listed as ‘good,'” he said. “We ran one race and the riders refused to ride (because of the condition). How can it be one grade below firm and be so bad we can't use it?”
A rider who asked that his name not be used said the Fair Grounds turf course was “dangerous” at times during the last meeting. “It's not the same course that it used to be,” he said. “It doesn't drain.”
Roussel said he's seen the turf course literally sink several feet in the last 20 years in an area with an extremely high water table. The jazz festival crowds and hurricanes have likely contributed to that sinkage.
“This course has to be maintained,” said Roussel, a trainer and owner as well as former racetrack executive. “It's very important that if major stables are going to come here, they have to have a first-class turf course. But, due to years of neglect, it's not the same as it used to be.”
“It's flat-out broken,” said Seelig.