11/25/2003 12:00AM

Entering a season of uncertainty

Louis Hodges Jr.
A forgiving main-track surface and mild weather are two reasons top horsemen like to spend the winter racing at Fair Grounds.

NEW ORLEANS - Horses began arriving at Fair Grounds for the winter on Nov. 1. The track's aging blue barns, tucked between a cemetery and historic Gentilly Boulevard, have steadily filled, the sounds of morning training flowing into the surrounding neighborhoods again, as they do every fall.

But this is a different kind of season at Fair Grounds, one fraught with skepticism and uncertainty. There are few answers floating about, but many questions.

* In what state will Fair Grounds emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, for which it filed earlier this year?

* How much money will Fair Grounds owe Louisiana horsemen, who won a lawsuit last spring requiring the track to pay out millions of dollars that, the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously decided, were improperly withheld from video poker machines?

* How can Fair Grounds strike back at slots-blessed Delta Downs, which operates a concurrent winter meet in Vinton, La., that has depleted the statebred and lower-level claiming stocks here in New Orleans?

* Will slot machines, all but approved for Fair Grounds, reverse this track's fortunes?

"While the controversy swirls, we're still going to run a racetrack," said Bryan Krantz, Fair Grounds president. "When the horses break out of the gate on Thursday, that will bring some sanity."

That is the hope, and the return of racing after an off-season of discontent may drown out some of the uproar. Fair Grounds, at its core, remains an attractive winter racing destination in many respects. The track surface here continues to be prized, a safe, cushiony surface where top prospects can be readied for summer campaigns in the East and Midwest. Mineshaft and Lady Tak came into this meet as low-level allowance horses last season, and now are contenders for year-end championships.

"I think the Fair Grounds is kind of simple," said Ben Huffman, who has taken over as racing secretary this season, replacing Mervin Muniz, who died in August. "We're a winter track with the best main track in the country, a great turf course, and great weather. You start right there. How many places like that are there?"

Fair Grounds's fortunes crested late in the 1990's. Then purses were slashed during each of the last two seasons, while four-day racing weeks were introduced early last meet. The four-day weeks are here again until January and resume in March. Purses will average $263,000 a day, similar to last season, thanks in great part to a $1 million cut in stakes purses.

Robby Albarado, Shane Sellers, Eddie Martin, Corey Lanerie, and Gerard Melancon head the jockey colony. Chief among Fair Grounds horsemen are Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss, who have accounted for the last five training titles here, and both have a horse for the opening day feature, the $60,000-added Thanksgiving Handicap. Asmussen starts the heavy favorite, Posse; Amoss has a longshot named Price of Honour.

For Posse, the six-furlong Thanksgiving Day is a tune-up for the Grade 1 Malibu on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita, as well as an overwhelming class drop. The last time he raced, Posse finished a closing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

"With all respect to his opponents, I think this will be an easier spot than his last start," Asmussen said.

Posse, who set a five-furlong track record here last season, has lost four times since capturing the Grade 2 Riva Ridge over Midas Eyes on June 7 at Belmont. But Asmussen thinks Posse's distaste for Saratoga, where Posse finished fourth and fifth, and not a decline in form accounted for his lack of production.

"He just does not run well at Saratoga," Asmussen said. "The King's Bishop was the perfect race for him, but it was run at the wrong place."

Conversely, Price of Honour is untested in stakes competition but comes into Thanksgiving Day riding a four-race winning streak.

"He's done what a stakes horse does, and that's run through his allowance conditions pretty easily," said Amoss, who claimed Price of Honour for Tom Boy Stable for $50,000 last May. "This is a whole new arena. We're aware of that. But his confidence is good, and the timing is right."

The four others in the race are Bonapaw, who is seeking his third win in the Thanksgiving, Aloha Bold, Gracie's Dancer, and Electrode.