11/19/2004 12:00AM

Enthusiasm runs high as opening day nears

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NEW ORLEANS - Fair Grounds opens a new era with the start of its 133rd season Thursday, featuring the traditional opening-day stakes, the Thanksgiving Handicap. Long one of the most coveted of the nation's independent racetracks, Fair Grounds will now be part of the powerful Churchill Downs Inc. after Churchill purchased the track in October for $47 million.

The track's new president and general manager, Randall Soth, has been working overtime with a transition team to prepare Fair Grounds for the season. With less than week to go, Soth was all over the plant talking to workers in the offices and on the backstretch.

"I'm so excited I haven't been able to sleep," said Soth, who came to Fair Grounds after serving as vice president and general manager at Calder Race Course, another Churchill-owned track. "We came over here to invade the beaches of Normandy about two weeks before the deal became final and started to get familiar with the racetrack people. I've been amazed by the enthusiasm people here have for Fair Grounds. When I was at Calder there was a lot of competition for sports attention in south Florida. When you asked people if they'd been at Calder or Gulfstream Park, most of them hadn't. But here it seems if you ask 10 people if they've been to the Fair Grounds, nine of them have. When we started taking reservations for opening day I had to use my cell phone to make calls, because every open line was busy for hours."

Soth has made good use of what little time he has had to prepare for the meet, creating a series of marquee racing days leading up to Louisiana Derby Day, March 12. Three of the meet's Grade 2 stakes - the Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds Oaks, and the New Orleans Handicap - will be run that day.

"We wanted to create some interest in the concept of big race days," said Soth. "We had a lot of success with those at Calder. It was a long eight-month season and you kept seeing the same faces over and over. Here we already had one on Dec. 11, Louisiana Champions Day.

"Gulfstream chose to move the Florida Derby forward from March 12 to early April, and that date was ripe to be plucked. Working backwards from the Kentucky Derby, we came up with March 12 for Louisiana Derby Day. We planned two days leading up to those races, one in mid-January and one in mid-February. In years past they had been three weeks apart, and I prefer four weeks apart. It's better for younger horses to bounce back from."

Soth envisions a seamless transition for 2-year-olds from Churchill's fall meet into the Fair Grounds winter meet, then back to Kentucky.

Said Soth: "I was looking for something that made sense not only in terms of the Derby but looking down the road at Churchill's fall meet, where you could draw a line from the 2-year-old events at the fall meet at Churchill, then going into January to March at Fair Grounds leading up to the Derby. We're trying to make one big interstate highway from Churchill to Louisiana back to Churchill."

Soth fully expects Churchill's takeover to make the Louisiana Derby a more prominent Kentucky Derby prep.

"I think we're well situated behind the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks," he said. "Horses have a chance to run in the Louisiana Derby and then run back again before the Kentucky Derby."