Balloon Rally logistics concern Louisiana Downs horsemen, racing commissioners

CROSSWAYS?: A graphic on the Red River Balloon Rally’s Facebook page shows the current pedestrian and vehicle path leading to the infield at Louisiana Downs, crossing the track’s turf course inside the dirt track.

By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports

A hole may have been punctured in plans to have approximately 25 hot air balloons — and a crowd of spectators — in the infield at Louisiana Downs for this weekend’s Red River Balloon Rally.

But officials at the track and the Shreveport-Bossier Sports Commission are considering adjustments that could be a patchwork solution.

While the event will take place Friday and Saturday (5-10 p.m.) as scheduled, some members of the Louisiana State Racing Commission (LSRC) — along with some local horsemen — expressed concern there will be damage to the turf course, which is on the inside of the dirt track and circles the infield.

Monday afternoon, the SBSC’s Director of Sports, Sara Nelms, told the Shreveport-Bossier Journal, “The balloons are still going to be in the infield.

“We’re working with Louisiana Downs right now on their concerns,” Nelms said. “But as of now, that’s the plan.”

It’s a plan with which at least one racing commissioner disagreed Sunday morning, when the issue flared up during extensive discussion of Louisiana Downs that took more than two hours during an LRSC committee meeting held at the track.

“It’s not a good look,” LSRC member Deano Thornton of Winnfield told the Journal. “It makes it seem like (Louisiana Downs) turned their back on the horsemen and the track. This facility is a horse track first, before it’s a gambling facility, before it’s any kind of balloon facility, or anything else. We need to protect the racing industry first, then do the other things.”

Louisiana Downs officials did not respond to a Monday morning interview request from the Journal, which — as the track requires — was made through its public relations agency.

Nelms said the balloon rally, which in past years has drawn thousands of people, including many children, has been planned for nine months. In addition to the balloons, there will be music and food. However, LSRC member Mike McHalffey of Bossier City told the Journal while he was aware the event was going to be at the Downs, there had not been any communication to the commission that balloons would be in the infield.

“If we lose turf racing because of balloon fest, we’re going to have problems.” McHalffey told Louisiana Downs representatives during Sunday’s meeting.

A major reason the rally was moved to the Downs from Brookshire Grocery Arena’s asphalt parking lot —where Nelms said temperatures last year reached 130 degrees — was to allow people to take a break from the heat. The track’s air-conditioned grandstand, as well as restaurants, will be open.

Commissioners said they have seen what can happen when events are held on a track’s infield, like when the New Orleans Jazz Fest is held each spring at the Fair Grounds Race Course.

“Our experience dealing with (Fair Grounds owner) Churchill (Downs Incorporated) and the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, what they do for the Jazz Fest, tears that facility up,” Thornton said. “All it takes is one spot in that grass that is not usable, and you’ve lost your turf season. I just think a better solution would have been to have it at this facility — somewhere besides in the infield. We need to protect the surface for the horses.”

Shane Wilson, Louisiana Downs’ leading trainer, is also worried about what will happen if the turf course is damaged.

“If they do damage to the turf course, it changes our entire meet,” Wilson said. “We run three to four turf races a day. I didn’t understand why you couldn’t have it in the empty parking lot out here. I guess this is what management’s chosen, so we will see how it goes.”

According to longtime track superintendent Billy McKeever, Jr., balloon rally officials plan on putting down pieces of plywood, which would allow vehicles, and people, to cross a portion of the turf course. However, he expressed concern to commissioners.

“I can’t tell you how it’s going to look,” McKeever said. “I’ve never done it.”

One commissioner asked, “Why wouldn’t they do this in that parking lot where the trucks can’t park anymore?”

McKeever replied, “They said the asphalt tears up the baskets.” McKeever added, “We didn’t plan any of this.”

The Journal has learned a compromise being considered is to move the balloons from the infield to the dirt track.

“We just wouldn’t be able to have as many balloons,” Nelms said, “but it’s not a big deal.”

A move to the dirt would cause some issues regarding placement of the tethered balloons, which, for $20 per person, will provide a ride 20-30 feet in the air.

“We would have to make some adjustments to figure out where we would be able to put those, because they need 130 feet on each side all the way around them,” Nelms said. “We would have to figure out a place to put them.”

In order to host the rally, Louisiana Downs will not have live racing Saturday. It is hoped by everyone the turf course is usable after Saturday.

“We obviously want the track to be successful, and we don’t want anything we’re doing to put a wrench in their racing season,” said Nelms. “We definitely want to do the right thing.”

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