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Trainers Pleased With Fair Grounds Reception for Challenge Championships

Trainers of horses racing Friday night during the 13-race Bank of America Racing Challenge Championships card have been pleased with first-time host Fair Grounds Race Course.

Fair Grounds has been really cooperative with us,” said Bret Vickery, who will send out five starters on Friday in his first time racing horses at the track. “They've been really good to work with.”

“It's been phenomenal—the reception from the gate crew, asking if there's any special needs for the horses, to the stall man in as far as the allotment of stalls,” said Heath Taylor, whose five starters include world champion Stolis Winner in the $350,000 Bank of America Challenge Championship (G1). “They've done a fabulous job on the horse side of it. I don't think they could have done a better job.”

The reception to the American Quarter Horsemen currently in town for the Challenge Championships is indicative of the area, said Fair Grounds racing secretary Jason Boulet.

“I want to give a lot of credit to Southern hospitality,” said Boulet, who is from Lafayette, Louisiana. “We take pride in that sort of stuff in New Orleans and south Louisiana. The bottom line is that we're hoping there's such a good response that the year after Los Al gets (the Challenge Championships) they're going to want to come back to New Orleans (in 2012).”

Sandra Salmen, who has been worked at Fair Grounds for 40 years, has been a cheerleader for the Challenge Championships in her role as head of horsemen's relations.

“It's a treat for us in New Orleans to see the world's fastest horses,” Salmen said. “I've been telling my Thoroughbred friends (that) this is the Breeders' Cup for the Quarter Horses.”

Many of the American Quarter Horses racing on Friday have taken up residence in barns mostly occupied by Thoroughbreds. Trainer Russell Harris' two Challenge Championships starters are stabled with Thoroughbred trainer Bret Calhoun, who can surely relate to Salman's description of the Challenge Championships.

“He was fortunate to win two Breeders' Cup races two weeks ago, and he's treated us like a king,” Harris said about Calhoun. “Our stalls were ready; they were bedded for us. He took care of us.”

Harris has several connections with Calhoun. Both have mutual clients, and Calhoun's Fair Grounds assistant, Jill Perry, is the daughter-in-law of Harris' longtime assistant, Allen Perry. The Calhoun crew has been interested in the sprinters, Harris said.

“They're awful excited in this barn, the grooms, the gallop boys,” Harris said. “All of them are going to the races. They can't wait to watch 'em.”

Meanwhile, Harris said he has run into many old friends during his time at Fair Grounds.

“I bet I've meet a hundred people I haven't seen in years, Thoroughbred trainers and even people I knew when I was a kid in Florida,” Harris said. “They've all been very curious; it's been a lot of fun. I've even run into grooms that worked for me when I was in California years ago.

“It's amazing the crossover. It's a small world when it comes to the racetrack.”

The first post on Friday is 5 p.m. Central, kicking off Fair Grounds' popular Starlight Racing program. Fair Grounds will opens its Thoroughbred meet on Thanksgiving Day, so 1,300 Thoroughbreds already are stabled at the track. Boulet said he expects a large turnout of Thoroughbred horsemen at the Challenge Championships.

“We're hoping the Thoroughbred people support the event,” Boulet said. “We want it to be a success.”