12/04/2006 1:00AM

Fair Grounds do's and don'ts

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The reopening of the Fair Grounds racetrack in the heart of New Orleans made national news over Thanksgiving weekend as a sign that the historic tourist town is coming back to life. It also touched a personal chord.

Fresh out of college In the mid-1960's, I moved to the New Orleans French Quarter after a Thanksgiving visit primarily because the Fair Grounds was one of the few tracks in America where stretch-running horses had a discernible edge.

While the strong stretch-running track bias has failed to survive multiple changes in the racing surface, the Fair Grounds's unusual configuration does lend itself to fairly run races in which a near equal number of stretch runners, stalkers, and front-running types can succeed.

Specifically, the Fair Grounds main track has a typical one-mile circumference, with an atypical stretch run of 1,346 feet, one of the longest in American racing. As such, the diameter of the track from backstretch to homestretch is narrower than many other one-mile tracks, such as Oaklawn Park, which has a stretch run of 1,155 feet or Santa Anita which features a mere 900 feet to the finish line.

This means tight turns at the Fair Grounds, turns that were reconfigured slightly a decade ago with extra banking. Thus in sprints with large fields, only horses with medium speed are at a disadvantage from outer post positions. All other running styles do well from any post, while horses with natural middle moves tend to use the track's tight turns to cut the corner along the rail or improve their positions two or three wide without using up important energy for the drive. The same is true for front-running types who get a clear inside running path.

While stretch-running sprinters and middle distance horses turning back in distance still benefit from the extra real estate to the finish line and some may not suffer any appreciable loss of their energy while swinging wide, a key handicapping insight is to observe how hard these horses were ridden to get into contending position.

If put into any kind of a drive to move up on the turn, most one dimensional stretch-running sprinters at the Fair Grounds will spin their wheels through the final yards rather than catch horses who managed to improve their position without expending their best energy.

In route races at a mile and 40 yards and 1 1/16 miles, the track's geometric measurements also tend to affect the way races are run.

The proximity of the starting gate to the first turn is the key issue, with wide posts and wide trips leading to many predicaments or outright defeats. At the mile and 40-yard distance especially, speed types and pressers from inside posts deserve a near automatic advantage.

Of course, there still are days at this venerable track when the racing surface strongly favors inside runners, or speed types who get to the rail at all dirt distances. This was the case on opening day (Nov. 23) and Nov. 24. But there also are days, such as Dec. 3, when inside speed types will be at a disadvantage against stalkers and stretch-runners who make the easy turn move into contention.

When this is the case, players should make immediate adjustments to favor horses with a strong conditioning edge gained from having shown some late speed in recent races and/or good overall speed at longer distances, coupled with stamina intensive workouts. While such days do not occur as often as the bias of the 1960's and 1970's, a heavy dose of rain followed by a day for drying out tends to bring back the old Fair Grounds bias for a day or two.

This may be due to another unusual fact about Fair Grounds, or more specifically, a fact that contributes mightily to the vulnerability of the Crescent City to flooding: New Orleans is built over underground streams; some only six to 10 feet below the track's foundation. This is one reason why the Fair Grounds employs a uniquely powerful drainage system to prevent the loss of its racing surface after a heavy downpour. It also explains why the track goes through cycles that favor different running styles as the surface dries out and returns to "normal."

During the opening two weeks of the new season, these additional trends seem likely to be prominent well into 2007.

As observed by DRF correspondent and handicapper Marcus Hersh, the turf course seemed virtually unchanged post-Katrina. This bodes well for one of the most potent horses for courses angles in the game. Except for maiden races, in which pedigree, trainer preferences, and workouts are the most dominant handicapping factors, horses with previous sharp performances on the Fair Grounds turf course deserve serious preference over newcomers to this deeply rooted course. That has been true at Fair Grounds for all the years grass racing has been available here.

The 16-year-old apprentice jockey Joseph Tallamo has ridden the quirky Fair Grounds racing strip as if he was schooled in its idiosyncrasies by former masters Larry Snyder and Eddie Delahoussaye. The same is true for Donnie and Lonnie Meche, brothers who have had success here for more than a decade.

Trainer Scott Blasi shipped in ready to sustain the 20-percent win average he has maintained since taking over suspended trainer Steve Asmussen's stock in the summer. Tom Amoss, who may start fewer horses than Blasi, also has shipped in as usual with a stable filled with live horses that have not yet established their true class levels. Leave it to Amoss to pick the spots, as he did on Dec. 3 with the Mountaineer maiden-claiming winner Flambeau Man, who won a 5 1/2-furlong Fair Grounds sprint for $10,000 claimers with a pace-pressing effort from post 9 of 10. On that same card, Blasi-trained horses won three races with strong rallies to improve his meet-leading totals. Trainer Pat Mouton also was set for the return of Fair Grounds racing in a big way, scoring with three winners on the opening two racing cards, including a horse that probably will win more than one race at the meet, Finally Alone, a lightly raced Louisiana- bred who improved noticeably in his first outing over the surface. For more insights into this track, I suggest regular review of Hersh's Fair Grounds handicapping diary published within these pages each week.