The Big Muddy: Fair Grounds Turf Course ‘Broken’

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What remained of the Fair Grounds turf course after Jazz Fest 2013 What remained of the Fair Grounds turf course after Jazz Fest 2013

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.

Patrons of the New Orleans Jazz Fest slog through the mud of the Fair Grounds turf course

Patrons of the New Orleans Jazz Fest slog through the mud of the Fair Grounds turf course

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.

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  • Noelle

    I’m not surprised to learn CDI could care less about the Fair Grounds turf course. What do they care about horse racing? CDI doubtless thinks it’s using the turf course in service of a “higher and better” purpose when they allow the Jazz Festival to trash it, same as they think leveling Hollywood Park allows a “higher and better” use of the real estate.

    • lovesabq

      CDI doesn’t currently own Hollywood Park. Several years ago, it sold the track to a company that thinks leveling Hollywood Park allows a “higher and better” use of the real estate.

      • Don Reed

        Agreed. But: Noelle (poster; not CDI!) should be credited for noticing that CDI had never ever truly reinvested in a property that they had bought.
        And for this, CEO MEEKER should be held accountable.
        (My, What a convenient ghost he became – after he took his leave from CDI. How smooth. The Off Ramp King, is he not?)

    • Michael

      How could they possibly care less?

  • Richard C

    CDI is not about horse racing — take it from that perspective and these slaps in the face of horsemen & race fans nationwide will make sense.

    • http://twitter.com/Bellwether4U Bellwether

      Had Bob Evans & the rest of those clowns pegged about nine years ago…Ring him up and ask him…ty…

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    How could such a fine, moral, and upstanding organization such as CDI possibly put the almighty dollar ahead of the good of the sport and the horsemen?? :) How the board of directors could stand for this is beyond me :) Letting the horsemen suffer loss of money and not caring about the surface over which the horses certainly is not the way an organization like CDI has shown itself to act in the past…I’m shocked they would be ok with this scenario :)

    • http://twitter.com/Bellwether4U Bellwether

      Shocked @ those clowns???…

      • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

        Sarcasm my friend….all sarcasm….

        • http://twitter.com/Bellwether4U Bellwether

          I know…Been reading your post on here for a while…Keep up the good work as its for one hell of a good cause…”The Game” is damn sure worth saving…ty…

  • Blue Grass Bass

    Embarrassing

    • Don Reed

      No. It is rejuvenating.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hadrian.marcus Hadrian Marcus

    CDI is too busy building ‘the Mansion’ at Churchill for the millionaires and shaking down backstretch workers at Calder for dorm room rent to bother with such nonsense as jockey safety and upgrading facilities. CDI’s unofficial motto seems to be…”if it doesn’t effect the bottom line, it doesn’t matter.”

    • Don Reed

      CDI is starting to sweat. A week ago, they were the Kings of the Universe (thanks to Orb).
      Now, the protests are gaining velocity.

  • Tinky

    What’s all the bitching about? CDI recently recorded RECORD earnings, as reported by The Paulick Report.

    What? You expect a safe turf course at one of their tracks, too? If so, then you’ve got a lot to learn about “maximizing earnings” (just ask the companies that outsource their garment work to Bangladesh).

    • Don Reed

      In case you are reading this literally… this is sardonic commentary. And WELL said.
      (The Bangladesh disaster resulted in the loss of 1,000 lives.)

  • Don Reed

    This is the evil of CDI.

    Come in, buy distressed property (NO – NOT Reverse Mortgages – Hello, Hollywood Park!).

    Collect the profits; refuse (vehemently – somehow, this doesn’t get into the PRESS RELEASES, see PIMLICO Park) to maintain the plant; eventually, sell off the property to outside interests who for whatever reason, see potential in wreckage.

    Is this news? No. This had been going on since @ 1980.

    Kudos to Ray Paulick for the reporting.

  • http://twitter.com/GuyFleegman1 Guy Fleegman

    Like our country, horse racing is imploding from within. Such a tragic shame.

  • KatraB

    CDI strikes again!!! ;( They threw Hollywood Park under the bus when, some years back, they
    sold out to “developers”, not horsemen, knowing full well what could happen. Is it true that CDI
    is mainly focused on the “Billionaire and Millionaire Rows” at Churchill Downs and neglect the
    rest of the Grandstand areas for us middle class folks? That is what I have been hearing! Is it
    really true? So very sad. :( Is it just mostly all businessmen now and not true horsemen?

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.cranesundell Susan Crane-Sundell

    Again here we have a major business organization with a HUGE conflict of interest. CDI makes money off an event that degenerates the venue for its main business purpose. Yeah who doesn’t like a jazz festival? But when the event destroys a turf course that horsemen have to use for their main business interest that affects the welfare of jockeys, exercise riders and most importantly, the horses (they don’t get to decide if the surface is too dangerous for them to run) that make this business possible, they had better invest the revenues to keep up the property or expect lawsuits, injuries and possibly even death. Pre-planning avoids terrible tragedies later. Our sport has enough controversy that it doesn’t need major high profile players bringing derision to the image and safety of our sport.

    Thank you Ray for highlighting this issue.

  • Knowitall

    “The net result is that CDI makes money, horsemen lose money, and the turf course is severely damaged.” That’s what the Corrupt Dumbass Ingrates call a WE WIN-you lose-eff you.

  • jttf

    put in a synthetic surface similar to keeneland’s synthetic. it acts similar to grass. then the horses will have a smooth transition from the fairgrounds to keeneland. you could even put the off dirt track races on the synthetic surface. there might be less scratches. it takes a long time to replace grass. after katrina hit, we all saw that the fairgrounds is located on some of the lowest ground in that area.

    • PPD

      FG doesn’t need plastic track. They would have a beautiful turf course if properly built and maintained. CD has left both the quality of racing and the turf course deteriorate.

  • TJS

    For years it was bash Frank Stronach. Now it’s CDI. It was CDI all along. Frank at least puts his money into the game. lets be very clear Bob Evans (CDI) is not the horseman Robert Evans. It is a shame that this organization has thrown the core under the bus. It’s all about EPS. I have travelled to my last Derby

  • Kris

    Folks, if you have a problem with CDI then simply refuse to give them any of your money. Don’t attend the races at a CDI owned track, don’t bet a penny online; keep your money in your pocket or spend it at other tracks. Send CDI an email detailing the fact that you are no longer patronizing any of their properties, let them know how much of your money they will no longer see, and then follow the words with the action. If enough people grow a spine and take this course of action I can guarantee CDI will notice.

  • turffilly

    this isn’t the only track being used for recreational purposes…. what about all of the safety issues? Such as broken glass, staples, nails, knives, forks, hair pins, tent stakes, pens, and any number of sharp/dangerous objects falling from peoples bags and vendors stations.

  • http://twitter.com/Bellwether4U Bellwether

    That turf course is perfect for pigs so send Bob Evans and the rest of those clowns @ the downs down there to hang out in it…ty…

  • anonymous

    CDI are pigs and eventually all pigs get slaughtered.They have let Calder turn into a slum.The rats are getting so large at CRC they should start taking entries.Fairgrounds is an embarrassment.They took no positive action at Hollywood Park.
    If it were not for two days each year in May; the entire organization loses money. Wish they would sell all of their other properties and give horse racing owners a chance.

  • Convene

    I have to wonder whether, if this were the main track at Churchill Downs, whether something would be done to remedy the situation. For too long, turf has been sort of regarded as the secondary cousin of racing in North America and at last it seem to be regaining popularity among people other than us die-hard “grass” fans. (Thank you, Tin Man and Wise Dan et al for doing your parts!) After all, isn’t turf the ultimate in “natural” surfaces for a grazing animal who historically ran away from the predators on grass? For the sake of our precious grass stars, I hope CDI smartens up and starts considering their safety when planning non-horse events where they place their lives on the line.

  • Buddy29

    CD has lost so much money on horse racing that they changed their business model to casino gambling. It’s a terrible track to go bet race horses. Sunday they ran out of forms and programs and it was 20 deep in every line to make a wager because they shut down most of the self service machines without bringing in tellers to save money. Never again, Express Bet gets my money.

  • Ian G

    I was the track superintendent there during the ’09/10 racing season and was constantly ignored when i told them 2 races a day max should be run over the course, they consistantly ran 5 a day over it because the racing secretary could not say no to the trainers, half way through the racing meet we were painting the grass green to make it look like a turf course! Management didnt care or listen when i told them it needed time, heck when i got there in the fall of 09 they were watering the whole course with garden hoses stretched from the grand stand!

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