11/01/2006 1:00AM

Add racing to New Orleans recovery


NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans took another step toward recovery Tuesday when Fair Grounds Race Course opened up its backstretch to horses for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city on Aug. 29, 2005. As a small army of construction workers busily finished up repairs and tractors harrowed the racing surface, the first van-loads of horses shipping in from Keeneland settled into their refurbished stalls.

"We're putting new plywood siding in every stall on the backstretch," said superintendent Mario Torres as he inspected workers finishing work on Barn 47. "I am confident that we will be 100 percent ready by the time the track opens for racing on Thanksgiving Day."

All 1,850 stalls maintained by the Fair Grounds already are reserved, even though some of the horses won't be arriving until the end of the Churchill Downs meet on Nov. 25.

"We had at least two applications for each stall space," said track media director Lenny Vangilder. "We have a couple of hundred horses on the grounds now and expect another large influx of horses around the 17th, a week before the meet starts."

The main track was scheduled to open for training on Thursday. Early arrivals walked the shed row Wednesday.

Trainer Neil Pessin sported a huge grin as he played with his rambunctious 3-year-old Chin High, winner of the Transylvania Stakes.

"It's great to be back," said Pessin, a Fair Grounds veteran. "They did a terrific job of getting this place fixed up."

The Fair Grounds was hit hard by the twin blows of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The storm surge from Katrina destroyed several levees and inundated most of the city, including the Fair Grounds racing surface and backstretch, which sat under several feet of brackish water for weeks.

Rita followed with high winds that sheared the roof off the grandstand, damaging the building significantly. The surrounding neighborhood still bears grim witness to the devastation, with most stores along nearby Broad Street still closed and entire blocks of gutted and burned houses near the track. Virtually everything east of the backstretch is devastated, although some hearty returnees are living in trailers while they repair their homes.

Like the early-season success of the New Orleans Saints and the return of the New Orleans Hornets franchise for at least part of the NBA season, the Nov. 23 resumption of racing at the Fair Grounds for its 135th racing season is a big source of pride for this sports-loving city.

Across the street from the racetrack, homeowner Sidney Bertrand was putting the finishing touches on his own restoration with a fresh coat of mint-green paint.

"I had about a foot of water inside the house," he said. "I got it all taken care of now, and I'm looking forward to having horse racing back. I'll be there on opening day."

The lack of viable housing and the fact that only about a third of the city's population has returned are big obstacles to overcome for all of the city's industries, but the service-dependent Fair Grounds operation is facing a unique challenge.

"It's hard to find workers," said Ed Maderi, who brought a string a horses trained by Alice Cohn in from Keeneland. "I need hotwalkers."

The jockey statue greeting visitors at the main gate is still painted in the pink-and-black silks of the 2005 Louisiana Derby winner, High Limit, but the statue has a chip knocked out of the cleft of its chin, making it look like some veteran boxer who took a haymaker to the jaw. But he's still standing, a fitting symbol of the track's determination to rebuild following the disaster.

"We've still got a few things to do but we've accomplished a lot," said Torres. "The place looks better now than it has any time in the 15 years I've been here."