11/23/2006 1:00AM

A cause for celebration


NEW ORLEANS - Fair Grounds, for those who haven't had the pleasure, is not by any means a large racetrack. It is tucked into a very residential section of New Orleans, stuck between Gentilly Boulevard, an old cemetery, and modest-housed small streets. And Thursday, open for business for the first time in 20 months, the place was absolutely jammed.

Thursday's was not an especially loud or boisterous group - but there were more people here than ever before. The attendance of 8,732 set a record for this building, topping the 8,107 that came out on Thanksgiving Day in 1997, the first meet after the new Fair Grounds grandstand was built following a catastrophic fire.

And the crowd that packed the place on a gorgeous Thanksgiving Day was, well, happy. Concession lines snaked through clubhouse and grandstand open spaces. Fans stacked up four deep to catch a glimpse of horseflesh in the paddock. And every parimutuel teller in the building could expect to look up to a line of 10 or more gamblers from 10 minutes to post onward.

No one seemed to be complaining, from the craggy-faced veterans catching some sun on the apron to the more genteel folk up on floor 5. What, after all, was a little wait for a bowl of gumbo and a beer, when New Orleans had been waiting the better part of two years for racing to return after the madness of Hurricane Katrina. Kermit Ruffins, the legendary New Orleans jazz trumpeter, joined bugler Les Colonello for the call to the post, then threw in a rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In. Earlier, the track had observed a moment of silence for Katrina's victims.

"I've seen people weeping here, dude," said Abraham Himmelstein, a teacher, writer, and racing fan who lived across the street from Fair Grounds before moving to nearby Dumaine St. "It's pretty intense. This is hugely important, hugely important to this neighborhood. Fair Grounds is a part of the fabric of this city - it's one of the reasons I live here."

The trainer Larry Robideaux was born on the other side of Louisiana, but he has been coming to Fair Grounds since 1960. In 1968, Robideaux won the meet's first race, and he did it again in 2006 with a Louisiana-bred claimer named Clouds on a Walk. Clouds on a Walk was piloted by 16-year-old Joseph Talamo, a native son riding his first Fair Grounds race.

"To win the first race after Katrina, that's great," Robideaux said. "They've put a lot into bringing this track back."

"They" are Churchill Downs Inc., which bought Fair Grounds in 2004, hardly knowing they'd be at Ground Zero of a natural disaster. It's taken some $16 million to put Fair Grounds back together again, and taken up most of Fair Grounds president Randy Soth's time the last 15 months.

"I feel tremendously satisfied, personally," said Soth, who reported that ontrack and all-sources handle was running some 30-percent above 2004 figures going into race 9. "I've worked at a lot of racetracks, and I've never seen a relationship between a racetrack and a city like this one."

The traditional opening day feature, the Thanksgiving Handicap, went to a non-traditional winner. Cort's P.B. was claimed for $40,000 the last time he raced, on Sept. 15 at Louisiana Downs, and in his first start for trainer Pat Mouton and owner Maggi Moss, Cort's P.B. won a $75,000 stakes. Zooming to the early lead from post 1 on a track that played kindly to inside speed, Cort's P.B. never really faced a challenge. Smalltown Slew, the tepid favorite, ran from the back of the pack to get second, but fell a length short of the winner while easily outfinishing third-place Orphan Brigade.

"He pretty much ran the first half alone by himself, and his heart got real big," said winning rider Jamie Theriot.

Cort's P.B., who will run next on Louisiana Champions Day, paid $29.60 to win and was timed in 1:10.35 for six furlongs.