01/29/2008 1:00AM

Business strong despite rainoffs


It was an unusual sight Monday in New Orleans. Horses actually were racing on the Fair Grounds grass course.

Yes, off-the-turf has become the phrase of the month in January, with rain basically putting a kibosh on turf racing during the last two weeks of the Fair Grounds meet. Races have been rained off the turf on eight of the last 10 programs, and since Jan. 1, there have been more off-the-turf racing days (11) than days on which grass racing could be conducted (9).

This should come as little surprise to Fair Grounds regulars. A 2007 study ranked New Orleans as the third-rainiest city in the country, with about 64 inches of annual rainfall and about 59 rainy days every year. Even so, the pace of rain-offs this meet is running high, with 19 days of grass racing already lost because of the weather. During the entire meet last season, which seemed rainy in its own right, there were only 20 off-the-turf days.

The weather has negatively impacted Fair Grounds business during the season, but handle on Fair Grounds races this year is still running ahead of last year, track president Randy Soth said.

"We're down about 4 percent from where we were [earlier this meet], but total handle is still up over last year," Soth said.

Despite the many scratches that occur when races are moved from turf to dirt, average field size, Soth said, still is about six-tenths of a horse higher than last year's final figure. Average daily purses have been paid out at the rate of about $350,000 per day, as planned, but Soth suggested that unlike the last two years, he saw no imminent purse increases on the horizon. If Fair Grounds were to boost purses at some point during the rest of the meet, the track's temporary slot-machine parlor could be the driver.

"I can't give exact numbers, but the slots are exceeding our expectations," Soth said.

3-year-olds drill for stakes

Monday's Fair Grounds work tab - which the weekend's wet weather turned massive - included several prospective starters for the 3-year-old stakes Feb. 9. Count among that group Jolie the Cat, who was named a likely starter in the Grade 3 Silverbulletday by trainer Steve Asmussen on Monday.

Jolie the Cat emerged from obscurity to post a front-running win Jan. 12 in the Tiffany Lass Stakes, but Asmussen had said after that race that her participation in the Silverbulletday was no certain thing.

Monday, Jolie the Cat was timed in a modest 1:03.80 for a five-furlong work, but speed was not the goal of the drill.

"She's wound pretty tight," Asmussen said. "I just put her in behind two horses and tried to turn her off."

Jolie the Cat won't be anything close to the favorite in the Silverbulletday, which is expected to draw champion filly Indian Blessing from California, as well as the Fair Grounds-based Proud Spell, who finished second to Indian Blessing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Proud Spell was timed in 1:01.60 for a five-furlong work Tuesday.

Also working for Asmussen on Monday was the unbeaten Lecomte Stakes winner Z Fortune, who breezed with one other horse and went five furlongs in 1:02.20 while prepping for the Risen Star Stakes.

"I think he's moving forward and getting stronger," Asmussen said.

Risen Star hopeful Blackberry Road went five furlongs in 1:02.40 Monday, while Silverbulletday-bound Clearly Foxy was timed in 1:02.

Pierce finding success in stakes

Trainer Malcolm Pierce has amassed eight wins at the Fair Grounds meet, which is good, and half of them have come in stakes races, which is remarkable. When Autobahn Girl won the off-the-turf Marie Krantz on Saturday, it marked her second stakes win of the meet, and was Pierce's fourth.

"I definitely didn't see this coming," Pierce said. "I had some maidens and some horses I thought were sitting on wins, but stakes, that's an added bonus."

Autobahn Girl, Pierce said, will be nominated to the Feb. 23 Bayou Handicap, but is not exactly being pointed to that race.

"We'll just have to see how things look," Pierce said. "If she doesn't do anything else, she's already had a good meet."

Another one of Pierce's local stakes winners, Sterwins, is on track for the Feb. 9 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup after breezing a bullet half-mile over a sloppy track Saturday. Sterwins won the Buddy Diliberto Handicap in December, but finished third as the favorite in the Colonel Bradley earlier this month.

Jacinto to miss 4 to 6 weeks

Jockey John Jacinto, sixth in the jockey standings with 30 wins, broke his collarbone in a spill Saturday and will be out of action four to six weeks, his agent, Jerry Reites, said Tuesday.

Jacinto was injured when his mount, a first-time starter named All Boy, broke down in midstretch of a Louisiana-bred maiden race. All Boy had to be euthanized and was the second horse of the day to suffer a fatal breakdown while racing over an extremely wet surface.