11/16/2005 12:00AM

For Fair Grounds, a bittersweet day

Louis Hodges Jr.
Fair Grounds president Randy Soth (above) will oversee the track's 37-day meet at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - Randy Soth became president of Fair Grounds Race Course a little more than a year ago, when Churchill Downs Inc. took over the historic track. He did not realize he was signing on to become an evacuee, driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. And he did not expect to be readying for the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City instead of Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be here," said Soth.

Nobody did. Thanksgiving Day means Fair Grounds opens. This year, the meet starts about a week early and about 341 miles northwest. After a flurry of multilateral post-Katrina negotiations, when it became clear New Orleans would not be ready to host a regular Fair Grounds racing meet, Louisiana Downs agreed to lease its facility to Churchill Downs Inc. for the Fair Grounds meet. Fair Grounds and the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association agreed on a purse structure and racing calendar. And Evangeline Downs agreed to host a November Quarter Horse meet previously scheduled to be held here at Louisiana Downs.

So, Saturday marks the first of 37 racing days at the Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs meet. A 10-race program was drawn Wednesday morning, with regular Fair Grounds racing secretary Ben Huffman presiding. Entries were strong, with 114 horses, including also-eligibles, on the overnight sheet. Ten were entered in the $50,000 Gentilly Handicap for Louisiana-bred turf horses, the first of 34 stakes at the meet.

Soth, in fact, has experienced three hurricanes this year, Katrina twice and Wilma once. Property that Soth owns in south Florida sat right in Hurricane Katrina's eye when it first made landfall in the U.S. as a Category 1 storm, and days later, Katrina turned north and tore apart the racetrack Soth was charged to oversee, as well as most of New Orleans. Last month, Hurricane Wilma hit south Florida, though Soth said he was spared the worst of that storm.

"I've been accused by some staff members recently of being a severe-weather magnet," Soth said.

Soth said he plans to travel back and forth between New Orleans and Bossier City during the next two-plus months. Here, he has a racing season to run. There, he has a racetrack to rebuild. Soth said Wednesday that he hopes Fair Grounds itself can be ready to host a 2006-07 meet, with reconstruction of the damaged grandstand under way and repairs to the rest of the property in the works.

But next year in New Orleans seems a long way off. Fair Grounds habitu?s accustomed to wintering in one of the country's most textured and urbane cities are adjusting to life at Louisiana Downs.

Dr. Ramley Bordelon, a southern Louisiana native who has a home in New Orleans, is a well-known racetrack veterinarian. Wednesday morning, making the rounds of the Louisiana Downs backstretch, his clients seemed about right; the surroundings, not quite.

"The other night I was sitting around in the Cypress Point apartments thinking I should be at home on my patio getting ready to barbecue," he said. "You spend so much time away from home as it is. But don't get me wrong, I'm glad that Churchill Downs decided to run the meet here."

Indeed, without the agreement that led to the venue shift, horsemen and racetrackers accustomed to wintering in New Orleans would have been left high and dry. Now, they have a meet that promises to offer more than $300,000 in daily purses and will mesh with Oaklawn Park, which starts its season at the end of the Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs meet. Many trainers will stable at both tracks, shipping horses back and forth as required.

There is a grass course here in Bossier City, room for more than 1,700 horses on the backstretch - and plenty of steakhouses. But three days away from the start of the season, the loss of the regular Fair Grounds meet and the terrible blow to the city of New Orleans still weigh heavily.

"It's going to be bittersweet emotion for me Saturday," said Soth.