State racing commission to meet Thursday over horse relocation dispute

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Fair Ground race start
(Photo: Steve Dalmado)

While Louisianians have been in a giving mood to help victims of Hurricane Laura, there appears to be a different story in the horse racing industry.

Fair Grounds Race Course denied a request from the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association last week to relocate more than 500 Thoroughbreds from Evangeline Downs in the wake of Hurricane Laura, and now the matter is headed to the Louisiana State Racing Commission, which will conduct an emergency public meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday to take up the matter.

In a letter sent by the LAHBPA to LSRC executive director Charles Gardiner Wednesday, it asks the racing commission “to exercise its full authority on an emergency basis” that Fair Grounds and Louisiana Downs allow for immediate relocation of Thoroughbreds from Evangeline Downs to make way for the Quarter Horses displaced from Delta Downs.

The LAHBPA’s formal request to Fair Grounds, which came 24 hours after Laura made landfall in southwest Louisiana, was the second request last week to relocate horses to New Orleans. On Aug. 25, the horsemen’s association made a verbal request to Fair Grounds about evacuating approximately 700 Quarter Horses from the Vinton track, which sustained extreme damage in the hurricane and will almost certainly delay the start of its Thoroughbred season, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 6.

Fair Grounds’ owners, Churchill Downs Incorporated, has its biggest weekend of the year on tap, hosting the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks at its flagship facility. Because of COVID-19, both days of racing – which would normally attract more than a quarter-million fans to Churchill Downs – will be run without fans on site.

There are a pair of ironic twists to the story.

It was fifteen years ago last week that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and another in-state track, Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, stepped up to allowed Fair Grounds – which had been purchased only a year earlier by Churchill – to run an abridged version of its traditional winter meet in Bossier City in 2005-06.

Evangeline’s Thoroughbred meet ended on Saturday. It is scheduled to begin Quarter Horse racing on Sept. 17, starting a 10-day meet referred to by the LSRC as the “Fair Grounds meet at Evangeline Downs,” a change made earlier this year to avoid overlapping Quarter Horse schedules because of COVID-19 postponements.

As a result, the backstretch at EVD needs to be cleared of Thoroughbreds to operate the Quarter Horse meet with purse money being funded by Fair Grounds.

Both Boyd Gaming, the owners of Delta, and local officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of the backstretch, but fewer than 30 percent of the approximately 1,000 horses on the grounds were able to get out before Laura made landfall.

The LAHBPA said approximately 120 horses are still on the grounds because they did not have a place to evacuate. “Thankfully, no loss of life” of horses or people occurred, the LAHBPA letter said.

Because of the request denial by Fair Grounds, the LAHBPA rented stalls at Equine Sales Company of Louisiana to move some of the Quarter Horses from Delta and is reimbursing expenses of owners and trainers who were otherwise displaced.

The LAHBPA’s request includes:

*Thoroughbreds scheduled to be stabled at Delta Downs for the 2020-21 Thoroughbred meet, including those stabled at Evangeline Downs, be allowed immediate access to stalls to stable at both Louisiana Downs and Fair Grounds.

*The personnel caring for these horses be provided customary living quarters.

*Horses stabled at these facilities be allowed to train Monday through Saturday from 6-10 a.m., with associated gate and timed works on Saturday.

*Tracks will provide required security and maintenance in the backstretch area.

*Horses stabled at Fair Grounds will be allowed to remain until Oct. 15, 2020, or if trainers have been assigned stalls at Fair Grounds for next winter, they

It’s the second time this year the LSRC has had to take up issues of stabling horses in case of an emergency. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, the LSRC issued an emergency order to force horses to remain at their current location and be allowed to train under the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s safety protocols.

Fair Grounds, whose meet was cut short by a week because of the pandemic, allowed horses to remain on site and train as mandated. Other tracks around the state were not as cooperative.

Nearly six months later, another emergency has the state’s racing industry scrambling.

“Time is of the essence,” the LAHBPA letter said, “for the LSRC to act and assist our horsemen in safely relocating their horses and personnel for Louisiana racing to continue.”

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Lenny Vangilder

Lenny Vangilder

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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…

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