11/22/2007 12:00AM

Back to normal, with slots on board

EmailNEW ORLEANS - The fans managed to find their way in, gray skies cleared in mid-afternoon, and opening day of the 2007-08 Fair Grounds meet passed with flying colors.

This opener didn't buzz like last year, when New Orleans - a city rich in racing tradition - welcomed the track back after a year's absence. Following the destruction caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Fair Grounds was forced to move its meet two seasons ago to Louisiana Downs.

Order has been restored now, for the most part, though opening-day fans found regular entrances blocked and some of the usual parking areas closed off on Thursday. The culprit: The construction of a permanent slot-machine parlor on the east end of the grandstand. In fact, patrons were welcomed Thursday by track announcer John Dooley not just to Fair Grounds Race Course, but to Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots. A temporary parlor housing 45 machines is up and running.

A good-sized crowd nevertheless made its way to the track without any major concerns, according to track president Randy Soth.

"Getting people in through that ingress, that was my biggest fear," Soth said. "But that was no problem at all."

The bell rang just past noon, and horses were off in the first race. Atlantic Shore sprang to the lead from the fence, set a fast pace, and never looked back. Joe Talamo won the opener last year, and went on to be leading rider. Corey Lanerie, who piloted Atlantic Shore, wished for similar good fortune.

"Talamo kept going," he said. "Hopefully I will, too."

And he did, winning race 8 on Desert Wheat, who should be favored in the Louisiana Champions Day Turf next month.

Trainer Al Stall also had a big day, winning consecutive mid-card races with first-time starter Star Guitar and the turf horse Middleweight.

"We won on opening day at Saratoga and at Keeneland," Stall said.

Stall had nothing for the featured $60,000 Thanksgiving Day Handicap but the Steve Asmussen barn did, and jockey Miguel Mena, spending his first season at Fair Grounds, rode Stormin Baghdad to a neck victory.

Coming out of an allowance win at Churchill Downs, and making his third start for Asmussen, Stormin Baghdad pressed the early pace set by Going Wild, who somewhat surprisingly wound up on the early lead under Lanerie. The opening quarter was a quick 22.02 seconds, the half-mile a quicker 44.86, and in upper stretch, Mena made his move.

"I waited as long as I could, and then I asked him at the eighth pole," Mena said.

Stormin Baghdad opened up a narrow lead, and held onto it, holding off Going Wild and late-running Thunder Mission, who finished a clear-cut third. Stormin Baghdad paid $6.80 to win, and was timed in 1:09.26 for six furlongs.