11/25/2003 1:00AM

Bonapaw has a holiday tradition


NEW ORLEANS - Bonapaw was asleep in the dark corner of his stall Monday morning at Fair Grounds. The old man needs his rest.

Bonapaw is 7 and turns 8 in five weeks, but on opening day at Fair Grounds he will be asked to win the Thanksgiving Handicap for the third time in his illustrious career, something no horse has ever done. The Bonapaw of old was the horse to beat in Fair Grounds sprint stakes, but this time, Bonapaw must prove he still can run with the likes of Posse, the 3-year-old colt who will be heavily favored Thursday.

Before this year, Bonapaw had never lost more than three times in a row, but he ended 2002 with a pair of defeats and lost his first seven starts this year. Finally, in a Keeneland allowance race on Oct. 10, Bonapaw broke through with a two-length victory.

"I don't think he's any slower," said Norman Miller, who has trained Bonapaw during his last 15 races.

But Bonapaw may be a different kind of horse now. Miller said he no longer sends Bonapaw to train alongside a pony, a tactic designed to slow down the headstrong horse. And Bonapaw's most recent published workout here is startling: five furlongs in 1:06.40. In years past, Bonapaw's breezes almost always were the fastest of the day.

"I don't think he has the will to go out and bullet-work five-eighths in 56 [seconds] anymore," Miller said. "But as far as putting himself in a race, he can still do that."

In fact, Bonapaw has had few chances this year to do what he does best - sprint on dirt. Of his eight races, only three have been dirt sprints, and Bonapaw wasn't adequately fit to compete in the first of them.

There is another change in the Bonapaw camp. Bonapaw's Fair Grounds victories always have spurred raucous winner's circle celebrations, but one of the twin brothers who owned him, Jimmy Richard, died of cancer earlier this year. His twin brother, Dennis, remains Bonapaw's most devout fan, but even if Bonapaw resurrects his best form in this Thanksgiving Handicap, the celebration may be more somber.

Roussel sitting this one out

Also missing from Fair Grounds this year is a certain white sport-utility vehicle that was parked each morning at the head of the Fair Grounds homestretch. In it sat, Louie Roussel, watching his string of horses parade from his barn onto the racetrack for morning training. He had watched them here for 33 years.

Roussel is spending this winter in Florida, but not as a horse trainer. He still has six horses in training at Hawthorne, but most of his stock from earlier this season either are turned out at farms or retired from racing.

"We're going through horses that were worn out," Roussel said.

Roussel was having a typically productive year until midsummer, but when his promising 3-year-old filly In Secure went down with an injury, his stable seemed to lose momentum.

But Roussel likes winning races too much to stay down for long. He will restock, reload, and, most probably, return.

Gill a new tenant

Roussel's barn is empty now, but its 38 stalls soon will house horses owned by Mike Gill. Roussel's barn sits on the Fair Grounds backstretch, but he owns the property and leased it to Gill for this winter. After signing a lease agreement with Roussel, Gill was rumored to have changed his plans, but Gill's Fair Grounds trainer, Gamaliel Vazquez, confirmed on Tuesday that 20 horses were leaving south Florida for Fair Grounds on Wednesday morning. Vazquez said the rest of the stalls would be filled with horses from other parts of Gill's far-flung operation.

Gill's aggressive approach to the claiming game has rankled racetracks and horsemen in Florida and on the East Coast, but Vazquez said other tactics will be employed here.

"Right now, we're not going there saying we're going to claim," he said. "We're going there to run horses. Maybe we'll claim a few. We'll have mostly older horses. Horses with open conditions and grass horses. We try to send horses that fit the races. We like to run."

Next stop unsure for Cuvee, Lady Tak

Posse, the Thanksgiving Handicap star, is one of three graded stakes horses in trainer Steve Asmussen's Fair Grounds barn. But while Posse's schedule is set - if all goes well, he starts next in the Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita - plans for Lady Tak and Cuvee are uncertain, Asmussen said.

"Lady Tak just is a tired horse right now," Asmussen said. "We're just piddling around with her and waiting for her to tell us when she can do more."

Cuvee, who finished last as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, came out of the race with a chip in his ankle, but already is back from surgery and is walking the shed row two times a day.

"I have no idea when he'll run next," said Asmussen. "It'd be hard for him to make the Louisiana Derby. We're going to be on the conservative side."

New workout clocking setup

Fair Grounds has altered the way morning workouts are timed this season, increasing the number of clockers this year from three to five.

Last season, two clockers timed races from a ramshackle stand near the half-mile pole, while another clocker timed longer works from the sixth floor of the grandstand. This season, there are three clockers located on the second floor of the grandstand, and a spotter at each of the gaps leading from the stables to the racetrack.

Michelle Salvino has taken over as the head clocker. Billy Pettingill, the longtime Fair Grounds clocker, now is the agent for jockeys Billy Smith and Sidney Lejeune.