11/22/2001 12:00AM

Fair Grounds: Bonapaw romps

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NEW ORLEANS - Bonapaw returned to his former barn and a racetrack he loves to put in a dazzling performance on opening day at Fair Grounds, easily winning the Thanksgiving Day Handicap for the second year in a row. Before a crowd of 7,648, Bonapaw beat Robin de Nest by 4 1/4 lengths, and his time of 1:08.74 for six furlongs - a stakes record - was close to the track record of 1:08.34 set last meet by Hallowed Dreams. He paid $3.40.

Last spring, Bonapaw emerged as one of the top sprinters in the country. His win April 12 in the Count Fleet Stakes at Oaklawn produced a 119 Beyer Speed Figure, one of the best sprint marks earned this year. Bonapaw went north to Saratoga late this summer, but after a creditable try in the Vanderbilt Handicap, he ran perhaps the worst race of his life when he finished ninth in the Grade 1 Forego.

The locally based trainer Tucker Alonzo elected to stay home when Bonapaw went north, but owners Jim and Dennis Richards returned Bonapaw to Alonzo this fall. Alonzo said this week that he would have preferred another week of preparation for Bonapaw, but the 5-year-old Sabona horse had little trouble disposing of five rivals Thursday.

Under Gerard Melancon, Bonapaw made a clear early lead, running a half-mile in a fast 45.18 seconds. Robin de Nest came up to Bonapaw's flank in the stretch, but Melancon had not yet asked his mount. When he did, inside the furlong pole, Bonapaw spurted clear to win going away. Crucible finished a non-threatening third.