Horsemen join together to assist in Katrina relief effort

Sep 6, 2005 7:10 AM

A dozen years ago, the Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans rose from the ashes after a devastating fire had destroyed the popular winter racing facility.

Now the track again faces rebuilding in the wake of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Fortunately, the track, located about 10 minutes away from the famed French Quarter, had not begun its live racing schedule, since the barn area that normally houses in excess of 1,000 thoroughbreds was flooded by four feet of water.

The track has about 500 workers who were dispersed by the hurricane’s aftermath and efforts are ongoing by Churchill Downs Inc. officials to locate them and provide living and accommodation assistance.

Joining in the effort is Sam Houston Race Park, located in the Houston, Texas, area that has become a temporary housing location for many of the New Orleans evacuees. Sam Houston Race Park President Bob Bork has established a presence at the Houston Astrodome to help locate displaced Fair Grounds employees and to provide them with financial help and temporary work.

Meanwhile, Churchill Downs officials are looking to find a location for their next Fair Grounds live racing meet.

The next race meeting at Fair Grounds was scheduled to begin Thanksgiving Day, a schedule that track operators were sure they would not be able to meet.

At a news conference on Friday, Tom Meeker, CHDN president and CEO announced that negotiations were underway to move the Fair Grounds race meeting to Harrah’s Louisiana Downs. The move would greatly benefit the horsemen who race in New Orleans since monies from the Harrah’s Louisiana Downs meeting would help boost the purse account.

"We believe that by running the meet there," said Meeker, "we can also provide some additional funding for those individuals who are in need — be they horsemen or employees of the track. In order for the race dates to be transferred, he noted, official sanction is needed from state regulatory authorities.

"It will be a unique meet and we’re still working on the details. We’re looking at it from the standpoint of purses, availability of horses, and concern for the horsemen to make sure we have an orderly path for them to follow for this year as well as next," Meeker said.

Although he had not been able to assess the damage completely, Meeker said, he felt confident that the company’s $200 million insurance policy, less a $500,000 deductible, would cover the damage at the track. He also said that Churchill Downs would file an insurance claim for the disruption of normal business stemming from the hurricane.

Churchill Downs was not the only entity looking to help those who have been impacted by the storm. The National thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) plans to lead an industry-wide effort to assist not only all the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama horsemen affected but also all the hurricane victims.

Prominent horsemen George Steinbrenner and Robert McNair have each pledged $1 million toward hurricane relief efforts while Retama Park near San Antonio, Texas, has established a program to help relocate Fair Grounds employees.

The NTRA has established the Racing to the Rescue Fund that will receive contributions, all of which will be passed along to existing charities established to aid in the recovery efforts.

Also, the fund will be promoted on racing television programs for a massive money raising effort on Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships Day set for Oct. 29. All racing participants from owners, trainers and jockeys will be encouraged to donate some of their prize money on that day. Among the leaders of the effort will be Racing Hall of Fame Jockey Kent Desormeaux, a native of Maurice, Louisiana.

Another group working to assist hurricane victims is the California Thoroughbred industry with the establishment of the "Racing with a Heart" fund. And, the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Ontario, Canada, has joined with the Canadian Red Cross in raising funds to assist in the disaster relief.

While television coverage focused on the problems along the Gulf Coast last week, racing fans at the various Nevada casinos were able to watch live racing from Evangeline Downs and Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, both Louisiana tracks that are located sufficiently west of the hurricane path to spare them from damage or even interruption in their racing schedules.

But horsemen at both locations joined with the Louisiana Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse Association to assist in the relief effort. Said Sean Alfortish, president of the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, "Racing is a team effort and this is just another example of how we can work together."