Under a threat of low purses, the state racing commission Tuesday took action to prop up the quality of races at the Fair Grounds during the upcoming season.
Members forced track owners to cough up $2.6 million, which they wanted to hold back due to pending litigation. It is the premiere horse race in Louisiana. But a cut in prize money, as proposed by Churchill Downs Inc., the Fair Grounds owners, could have made the Louisiana Derby, just another race.
"Please have them explain to you how cutting the Louisiana Derby purse by $400,000 is in the best interest of racing," said horse owner Harry Bruns, speaking to the commission.
In fact, the proposed cut could have reduced purses for all races by as much as 30 percent, a move which could have hurt the track's ability to attract quality horses and racing enthusiasts.
"This is an issue that's of great concern to the racing industry," said Bob Wright, the chairman of the horse racing commission.
Churchill Downs planned to reduce purses for the upcoming thoroughbred racing season due to a lawsuit filed by quarter horse owners, seeking a larger share of video poker proceeds earned at the track.
"It's unfortunate this was filed by people usurping the racing commission's authority," said David Waguespack, the attorney for Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs held the $2.6 million back in an abundance of caution in case they got an adverse court ruling, but the commission found that Churchill Downs had the wherewithal to absorb any adverse claim.
"The Churchill Downs stock price was at an all time high of $99 a share," Bruns told the commission before it voted to restore the purse money.
The Louisiana Racing Commission has the power to pull Churchill Downs' license to operate at the Fair Grounds, but instead ordered the racing company to restore the purse money.
"They can seek a court order, but I don't anticipate that happening. What the commission did today is pretty solid," Wright said.
Earlier this year, the commission voted to make Churchill Downs improve drainage, add video monitors, and provide more live tellers. Now they hope that by restoring purses, they will continue to make the track an attractive venue to support a horse racing industry that LSU said generates for $1.3 billion a year for Louisiana.
The Fair Grounds opens Nov. 21 with live racing as part of its Starlight Series of night races, featuring concerts. The fall and winter meet will continue, through the end of February.