Purses, optimism up as Louisiana Downs marks its 50th anniversary Saturday

TOUTING THE TRACK:  Louisiana Downs racing secretary Matt Crawford spoke enthusiastically Wednesday about the local track’s upcoming 61-day thoroughbred meet, which begins Saturday afternoon. (Photo by DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports 

Saturday’s opening day at Louisiana Downs begins the 50th anniversary season of live thoroughbred racing in Bossier City. The excitement was evident Wednesday at the track’s media day, with supporters and staff cheering at every opportunity in a brief presentation.

There haven’t been ringing cheers in the grandstand in years, though. Although rather ambivalent previous ownership was a significant factor, the overriding challenge has been a national malaise, as the industry has struggled to adapt.

“I don’t think it will ever be what it was,” said Shane Wilson, who has won the last two training titles at Louisiana Downs and races at several tracks in and outside Louisiana. “When we started opening off-track betting parlors, and online wagering, it changed the game. We just left the Fair Grounds, one of the country’s great tracks. They have great purses, they have big-name horses and trainers, but you come out on the weekends and there’s not anyone there.”

New track ownership arrived in Bossier City early last year, and while there were first-year hitches – notably having to rein in plans to stage the track’s signature event, the Super Derby – Kevin Preston, the president of Rubico Acquisition Group, has Wilson and other horsemen optimistic that better days are around the corner. 

The revival of the Super Derby – unlike last year, now listed on the 2023 schedule of the industry’s information hubs, with a relatively modest $200,000 purse on Sept. 2— is one key stride forward.

“It shows Louisiana Downs is coming back. We didn’t have enough purse money (last year) to have a Super Derby,” said Wilson, who has 748 career wins and $14.3 million in purse money won by his horses. “Now they do, and they’re putting it on, and that will bring people from out of state, some of the better trainers sending in horses for this signature race.”

Improving the purse money is vital for the owners and trainers to bring their horses to Louisiana Downs. That happened with the strategic decision, reached in consultation with the Louisiana Racing Commission, to reduce the traditional 84-day meet to 61 days here and at Evangeline Downs. The move was forced by a financial crisis created by bookkeeping mistakes away from the tracks, by the Louisiana Horsemens’ Benevolent and Protective Association making a $600,000 overpayment to purses last year at Louisiana Downs, leaving a gaping hole for 2023.

The gaffe – nothing that anyone around Louisiana Downs had anything to do with — was a blessing in disguise, explained track racing secretary Matt Crawford, who trained at the Downs in the 1980s and had the track’s 1987 horse of the year, Big Sturgeon.

Another benefit – installation of new slot machines, which should hike revenue that can bolster purses.

“Louisiana Downs has been in a 10-year string of leveled-out, no purse increase. With 84 days, it was getting difficult,” said Crawford. “The slot revenue helps a little bit, and it’s going to improve even more with Kevin and the group getting new machines in here for the first time in 20 years. That will gradually build up our purses, and dropping to 61 days increased our daily distribution tremendously.

“Our purses went up 42 percent. It’s going to attract horsemen, and that will attract the racing. Every year it will get better and better,” he said.

“That’s what’s hurt this place forever,” said Wilson. “It’s had the lowest purses in the state for the last few years. Why come here when you can go somewhere else and make more money? You have to just like this area. Now, with the increased purses, you’ll see more horsemen and a better product.

“Also with Kevin, he’s opened a new restaurant downstairs, and he has another brewery, and he’s brought in new slots to bring people in. Everybody is excited to see this place might could be one of the better tracks. It used to be one of the best in the country, and we fell down to being about fourth in the state, but we’re working our way back up.”

Wilson, back home in Haughton after an impressive fourth-place season at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, is happy to be racing in Bossier City for the fifth straight thoroughbred meet.

“It’s exciting. I was a 14-year-old kid who started working at Louisiana Downs as a summer job. Now I’ve had the opportunity to race at other tracks, but we come back because we want to support Kevin. We see the things he’s doing, bringing in new people, and with the purse increase this year, we have trainers who haven’t been here before. We’re really looking forward to the meet.

“The racetrack here is immaculate always. We can train young horses, and it’s always safe. The racing office does a good job trying to help the owners to make revenue and pay their bills. The track is heading in the right direction.”

Preston was in Kentucky Wednesday for his daughter’s graduation Friday at the University of Kentucky, but in a brief video said he would hurry back for Saturday’s opening day.

The meet begins at 2:05 Saturday with seven races, and a simulcast of the 149th Kentucky Derby from Churchill Downs. The season runs through Sept. 12.

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com