11/23/2001 1:00AM

Bonapaw on target for repeat campaign


NEW ORLEANS - Bonapaw's outstanding performance Thursday at Fair Grounds apparently left him no worse for wear, and trainer Tucker Alonzo deemed Bonapaw a likely participant in the next sprint stakes here, the F.W. Gaudin Memorial Handicap on Dec. 16.

"He came back good," Alonzo said Friday morning. "He ate everything up last night. We'll try to keep the same schedule as last year."

After a poor race in the Grade 1 Forego on Sept. 1 at Saratoga - a sign he might be wearing down after an ambitious campaign - Bonapaw returned to Louisiana and got a much-needed monthlong rest. Thursday's Thanksgiving Day Handicap was his first start since his break, and Bonapaw, making a good impression from the moment he set foot on the track, delivered an overpowering performance. Breaking on the lead, he set a quick pace and finished strongly when set down by jockey Gerard Melancon in the final furlong. His six-furlong time of 1:08.74 eclipsed the stakes record he set in last year.

"What else can I say?" said Alonzo, who said early this week that he would have preferred another week to prepare Bonapaw for his return. "I'm real happy. He was ready to go."

Kentucky crowd arriving

The exodus from Churchill Downs, which to close for the year after Saturday's races, has begun, and the flow of horses from Louisville to New Orleans will intensify in the next few days. Track officials here anticipate the empty stalls now dotting shed rows of several major stables will be all but full by Wednesday.

Kentucky trainers set to ship much of their stock in the coming days include Carl Bowman, Frank Brothers, David Carroll, Neil Howard, Blackie Huffman, Niall O'Callaghan, Chuck Simon, Elliott Walden, and various others. That means high-end allowance races - such as the turf race that would have been the feature here Friday, but was scrapped for lack of entries - will stand a better chance of making it onto upcoming programs.

Several Kentucky-based jockeys also are set to begin riding here, chief among them Robby Albarado, who is named to ride five horses Sunday.

Good showing for opener

Fair Grounds officials were pleased with Thursday's opening day despite the fact that several minor glitches set the day significantly behind schedule. Thursday's 10th and final race was run under the lights.

But the 7,648 people who showed up under ideal weather conditions was the second-largest crowd to attend the races since Fair Grounds opened its new building in 1997. Last year's opening-day attendance was 7,136.

Ontrack betting was slightly down, from $552,730 last year to $535,982, but a gate scratch in the last race affected that figure. Overall handle, which rose throughout the day, increased from $1,994,344 to $2,331,191.