The Fair Grounds will be allowed to expand beyond horse betting after City Council voted Thursday to allow it to create a sports book, ending a prohibition on televised sports betting at the race track that will bring it in line with other Louisiana casinos.
In 2005, the council allowed Fair Grounds owner Churchill Downs, Inc. to add slot machines in addition to the bets on horse racing at the Gentilly track, but with conditions. Among them was a prohibition on taking wagers on televised sports other than horse racing.
A 2020 state law allowed parishes to decide whether to allow sports betting, and most — including Orleans, by a wide margin — passed referendums making it legal. The move has led to sport betting expansions at brick-and-mortar casinos and also the fast-growing market for mobile betting apps.
But until Tuesday, Churchill was still bound by the 17-year-old rules it agreed to in order to have slot machines.
“We need it because all our competitors have it. We’re the only ones that don’t have it,” said Doug Shipley, the fairgrounds’ general manager, after the council voted 5-0 to allow sports wagering there.
Council member JP Morrell abstained because his mother rents a stall at the race track. Council member Eugene Green was absent.
The City Planning Commission previously recommended approval, reasoning that Churchill’s plans don’t call for new construction. Shipley said sports betting would occur in an existing 1,500-square-foot room with a couple dozen televisions.
The room is currently used as a multipurpose event space.
“It’s not going to be like a Harrah’s-Caesars type of mega sports book,” Shipley said, referring to the sports book in the casino at the foot of Canal Street. “This is more or less just to serve the folks that are already there.”
Council member Helena Moreno passed an amendment calling for Churchill Downs to explain how it will ensure that horse racing continues to be the venue’s primary use.
The Planning Commission report includes several letters of support from nearby residents, but the support wasn’t unanimous.
Two members of the Fairgrounds Citizens Advisory Committee, Jeannie Donovan and Bruce Hamilton, submitted public comments before Thursday’s vote claiming Churchill Downs had not complied with other rules in 2005.
Specifically, Donovan said Churchill Downs had fallen short on its commitment to pay for a four-officer, round-the-clock New Orleans police patrol.
Shipley denied the claim, and said Churchill Downs pays $600,000 annually for the patrol.