11/11/2008 12:00AM

Cajuns help fill entry box


NEW ORLEANS - If the question was whether Fair Grounds could attract fields of decent size while opening at an earlier date than usual this year, the answer is clear: most definitely.

Fair Grounds's opening day card on Friday drew 111 entries (including also-eligibles) for 10 races when it was drawn on Sunday. Entries for Saturday's races were taken Monday, and that program got 109 horses for 10 races.

Fair Grounds historically opens on Thanksgiving, but expanded its racing season this year, and is starting almost two weeks earlier. That means the first part of the season here overlaps longer than usual with the fall meet at Churchill Downs. Many Kentucky stables migrate to New Orleans for the winter.

"There's going to be a little more of a Louisiana flavor the first couple weeks," said first-year Fair Grounds racing secretary Jason Boulet.

Boulet brings Louisiana flavor of his own. From the Lafayette area, Boulet has been racing secretary at Evangeline Downs since 2005. Before taking that position, he worked in the Fair Grounds racing office under longtime racing secretary Mervin Muniz for one year, and under Ben Huffman for two seasons. Boulet worked a spring meet at Keeneland for Huffman, getting to know more of the Kentucky-based horsemen, and should be able to attract more central Louisiana-based horses here than in previous seasons.

"I think the Fair Grounds had lost touch with a lot of the Lafayette people," Boulet said. "When Delta Downs got slots, and their purses went up, suddenly Fair Grounds had competition. I think my relationship with the local horseman can help."

Four Louisiana-bred 2-year-old races on Friday and Saturday all drew full 12-horse fields. A Louisiana-bred dirt stakes race and an older route claimer got nine horses each, and a Saturday turf stakes drew 14 entries.

There is plenty of horseflesh from which to draw in the Lafayette area. The old Evangeline Downs plant now is a major training center with room for 2,000 horses, Boulet said. Many horsemen that race regularly at Fair Grounds, such as Steve Asmussen, Cody Autrey, and Mike Stidham, have stalls at the Evangeline training center.

Fair Grounds plans to pay record purses during the meet, and the season's first two days back that up. Purses on Friday total $392,000; on Saturday, the 10 races are worth $325,500. The three stakes races on the two days are only worth $60,000 apiece, so most of the purses are of the overnight variety. Louisiana-bred maidens are running for a $44,000 purse; open maidens compete for $42,000.

The opening day feature, the $60,000 Blushing K.D., is not a statebred-restricted race, but still drew a full field of 14 turf females. The likely favorite is the graded-stakes-class mare Stormy West, who finished fifth last time out at Keeneland behind Forever Together, subsequent winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Stormy West was one of three horses trainer Bill Mott entered on the opening-day card. After a long absence from the track, Mott began operating a Fair Grounds string again last season.