Louisiana Racing Commission defers Churchill Downs Inc.’s license for the Fair Grounds

Verbal assurances of addressing problems with the operations of the Fair Grounds by its owner weren’t enough for the Louisiana Racing Commission Tuesday.

The group wants them in writing.

Deferring what usually is a routine renewal of Churchill Downs Inc.’s rolling 10-year license, the commission told CDI officials to submit by Friday a written plan for both the short term and long term with a vote then anticipated at a special meeting on May 1.

The action was taken after months of criticism from horsemen, patrons and board members along with pending legislative action. And it comes on the first weekend of the New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Festival, which draws thousands to the track who probably no longer attend for racing.

The commission had requested a detailed progress report from CDI on what is annually the license renewal date for the state’s four racetracks.

Louisiana Downs, Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs all received theirs on Tuesday with little discussion.

The Fair Grounds situation proved to be a far different case.

After a lengthy grilling of Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant, the group went into executive session, after which it made a unanimous vote to defer the renewal.

“This shows that we’re aware of the same situation as the general public,” commission chairman Jerry Meaux said. “I hope Churchill Downs understands that they need to be a better citizen.”

The denial of a racing license would generate an automatic appeal which would allow CDI to continue operating the track plus its 11 off-track betting facilities until the matter is adjudicated. The Louisville, Ky.-based company, which owns Churchill Downs and three other tracks plus other gaming interests, purchased the Fair Grounds in 2004.

Meaux said he hoped it would not come to a denial, but that the commission was prepared for whatever happened.

“We know this is a big step,” he said. “But we’ll take whatever steps it takes. We didn’t hear much from them today.

“We’ll see what happens.”

During his presentation, Bryant several times acknowledged the validity of the criticisms which have been directed towards the track’s management.

“We could have done a better job communicating things to you,” he said at one point.

“We were looking on this as a business,” he said at another. “At this stage, we’re now listening.”

And at another, “We are dedicated to the Fair Grounds and to the progress of horse racing industry.”

Among the things pledged by Bryant were the replacement of the infield video screen which has been broken for two years, more live tellers both at the track and at the OTBs, making sure that backside area is properly maintained and marketing racing as much as the slots area.

Bryant, along with architect John Stewart, said that some $200,000 in repairs are being done to the major drainage pipes, which critics charge is a major cause of the problems with the turf course. In the last two meets, approximately 45 of the scheduled turf races were either moved to the dirt course or cancelled.

But Bryant said he did not yet have corporate approval for the additional $500,000 it would take to replace the pipes if that were found to the best solution to the problem, but that he would personally make it a priority.

“This is the first time we’ve heard anything positive from the Fair Grounds indicating they were going to do something about their problems,” said board member Thomas Grimstead, who has been outspoken in his criticism of CDI. “I think they finally realize the extent of the feelings and the breadth of the opposition about what’s been going on there

“I prefer to be optimistic that they’ve had a change of heart. But all we can really do is trust, then verify.

Bryant declined comment after the vote, but did issue a written statement which said, “Today the Fair Grounds submitted a plan for facility and operational improvements to the Louisiana Racing Commission. The plan reflects the Fair Grounds’ commitment to the future and integrity of horse racing.

“The commission asked for further information on the plan, which we will provide as soon as possible. We look forward to further discussions around our continued efforts to show our commitment to Fair Grounds racing in New Orleans.”

Tuesday’s action came a week after a bill sponsored by State Rep. Patrick Connick (R-Marrero) mandating 10 percent of the slots revenues go towards facility improvements and other upgrades was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives.

Connick has two other bills pending which would affect the track’s license and number of racing days.

To commission first vice-chairman Bob Wright, Connick’s bill has had a dramatic impact.

“What really disgusted me is we’ve met with them before, and until this stuff came up in Baton Rogue they were not willing to do anything,” he said. “It took the legislature and us to tell them that we’re not going to tolerate this.

Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association president Stanley Seelig of Metairie, who has been in the forefront of criticism of the Fair Grounds, praised the commission’s action.

“What the commission did was very prudent until we see in writing what the Fair Grounds’ plan is,” he said. “It would have been irresponsible for the commission to rubber stamp it and to just go along like there’s nothing wrong.

“They’re giving them the opportunity to come in with a new program. I’m hoping we see something more substantial than what was presented today.”

Grimstead said he was hopeful that Tuesday’s actions could present a turning point for the Fair Grounds, which, like most of the nation’s race tracks has been fighting declining revenue and interest as the public turns to other gaming opportunities.

“Thoroughbred racing is a part of our culture,” he said. “We just can’t let it keep deteriorating.

“I firmly believe that the Fair Grounds can continue to profit off its video poker and slots to support racing and maintain their support for the Fair Grounds. And I think we’d be much better off if we can come to some agreement instead of relying on the legislature.”