03/29/2004 1:00AM

Fair Grounds's future shaky


Fair Grounds dropped the curtain Sunday on its 2003-2004 season, the future of the track as unsettled as when the meet began on Thanksgiving. Numbers fell across the board from last season, and were a far cry from the heyday of the late 1990's, but handle declines have been subsumed by a greater concern - the very future of Fair Grounds.

The track remains in bankruptcy, the date for its reorganization filing having been pushed back last week to April 15. Less than a week before meet's end, a district court judge ruled Fair Grounds owes the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association almost $90 million, money judged to have been improperly deducted from video poker machines. A settlement amount isn't expected to approach that dramatic figure, but a host of entities, from racing corporations to gaming interests to strict financial ventures, are exploring the possibility of buying the horsemen's claim or entering into some kind of partnership with Fair Grounds.

Fair Grounds has pending litigation against the state of Louisiana, and appealed the $90 million judgment, but the blurry mass of business concerns should soon come into clearer focus.

"I'm hopeful it'll be resolved in the next week or two," said Bryan Krantz, president and general manager of Fair Grounds.

Handle fell sharply during the 80-day meet. Total average daily handle this season was $3,963,472, down 7 percent from the $4,256,580 average in 2002-2003. Attendance held steady, but average daily ontrack handle was down 6 percent, from $230,326 to $216,082.

For the first time in three seasons, Fair Grounds avoided making mid-meet purse cuts: Average daily purses fell 1 percent from last year, from $262,267 to $259,641. And field size, thought to drive handle, increased from 8.19 horses per race last season to 8.26 this year.

"It's tangible, the effect word-of-mouth has on your meet, and the word-of-mouth has not been positive on us the last two years," Krantz said. "Until we can reverse the purse trends, we're not going to get that going again."

Krantz believes a reversal can begin next season. Fair Grounds has cleared all but the the last hurdle in its push to bring slot machines to the track, but is not likely to receive final approval until coming out of bankruptcy. If the financial situation is soon resolved, slots could be running by late summer or early fall.

Robby Albarado won a record 13 stakes races during the meet, and easily captured the riding title with 106 wins. Steve Asmussen's 63 wins were far more than any other trainer, and Asmussen also topped the owner standings with 16 wins. Mystery Giver, the Mervin Muniz Handicap winner, was named horse of the meet, while Peace Rules won the New Orleans Handicap and Wimbledon the Louisiana Derby.