Updated on 09/16/2011 8:46AM

Delta slots rattle Big Easy nerves

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Lou Hodges Jr.
For the first time since its resurgence in the 1990's, Fair Grounds stagnated last year. This year, it must compete with slots-driven Delta Downs.

NEW ORLEANS - The warm, sunny mornings last weekend at Fair Grounds were wonderfully tranquil - and that was troubling.

With the pressure on from tiny, slots-blessed Delta Downs in Vinton, La., and a newly resurgent Oaklawn Park awaiting its January opening, Fair Grounds launches an 85-day winter meet Thursday, trying to bounce back from its first regression after a period of sustained growth. The track hopes increased participation from horses stabled on its grounds will compensate for the loss of central Louisiana-based horses to Delta's lucrative purses, but even the amount of training traffic during recent days - one regular said he had never seen fewer horses out here this time of year - underscores the fragility of the season.

"I don't think things are going to be worse," said Fair Grounds president and general manager Bryan Krantz. "But we've got to be asking, 'What can we do to be better this year?' "

Fair Grounds gained prominence during the 1990's through a powerful combination of a highly regarded track surface, growing fields, and rising purses, but business stagnated last year. Handle and average daily purses retreated to levels from the late 1990's as the average number of horses per race dipped to 8.2, down about a horse from the previous season.

At about $270,000 per day, purses this year are similar to last year's, but to give field size a quick boost Fair Grounds cut its racing week to four days during December, eliminating Mondays. It has worked on opening day - headed by the $75,000 Thanksgiving Day Handicap - on which average field size is more than 10 and four races drew full fields.

"I think the first week we'll be good," said director of racing Mervin Muniz. "After that we'll have to see."

At Delta, the slot-driven purse boom means Louisiana-breds and bottom-level claimers run for more money than in New Orleans. For central Louisiana-based horsemen with that type of stock, the decision is easy: Follow the money. So Fair Grounds, if it's to consistently stage the attractive races that fuel handle, will have to maximize the onsite horse colony.

"They're going to have to pay more attention to who's running," said Tom Amoss, eight-time leading trainer at Fair Grounds. "The biggest problem they've had here is a lack of participation from people on the grounds."

"It's been a problem in the past, especially last year," Muniz said. "People have wanted to use this as a winter training center."

Adding uncertainty are shifts in the Fair Grounds horse colony. Gone are trainers Todd Pletcher, Niall O'Callaghan, and Elliott Walden, who will all race in Florida this winter.

Wayne Catalano has a larger string here than ever before, and Fair Grounds will count on horsemen such as Brett Calhoun and Ronny Werner to help fill the void left by the departed outfits.

Eddie Martin returns to defend his riding title, but Robby Albarado and Shane Sellers, who start riding here next month, will press him. As usual, the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby headlines the meet. Amoss may have a contender in Cat Genius, while Bobby Frankel plans to send the exciting Empire Maker (and a handful of other horses) following the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.

The only one of four Louisiana tracks without a slots license, Fair Grounds has lobbied for slots the last two years. "Slots would provide us a source of revenue that gives us more long-term viability as a business," Krantz said.

Although Harrah's Casino has waived its exclusive right to slots in New Orleans, Fair Grounds failed to muster necessary support for slots at this past spring's Louisiana legislative session. They will try again next year, and Krantz is optimistic the legislative climate will be more accommodating, but even if the track wins approval and passes smoothly over the other licensing hurdles, slots wouldn't arrive before 2004.

There's also an upheaval in the six-furlong, $75,000 Thanksgiving Day Handicap, which for the first time in three seasons will be without its star attraction, Bonapaw, who runs in Saturday's Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

Trainer Steve Asmussen ran Bonapaw's long-time local rival Abajo at Sunland Park last week rather than in the Thanksgiving Day, but in Mountain General he still has the horse to beat Thursday. "He should get the meet started the right way," Asmussen said.

Amoss, Asmussen's rival for leading trainer here the last two years, has a counter to Mountain General in Aloha Bold, who has won seven of 12 career starts. Wild Summer also is a contender in an eight-horse field, as is Crucible, whose presence heralds the opening of this meet.

A wild, ill-tempered old gelding who refuses to train by traditional methods, Crucible is racing at his sixth Fair Grounds meet. Though he will turn 8 in a month, Crucible shows little signs of slowing down. He was third in this race last year and second in 1999, the last year he won a Fair Grounds stakes.