01/01/2003 1:00AM

Gems hidden beneath Fair Grounds feature


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Thanks to the New Orleans Saints losing their final three games to teams that were in last place in their division, sports fans in the Big Easy are disgusted to know that their team will not be in the NFL playoffs. There is nothing new about that - this is a team that has experienced seven winning seasons in 36 years. Relatively speaking, a 9-7 record is an accomplishment.

At least sports fans can take heart in Fair Grounds being open. The athletes there are good, not grossly overpaid like their human counterparts, and the action there can be more rewarding.

Friday's card is one of the better ones in the country. Fair Grounds is running a stakes on a weekday, the $75,000 Truly Bound Stakes.

Only seven fillies and mares were entered in the 1 1/16-mile race, and most are allowance or minor stakes horses. The class in the field is Lakenheath, winner of the Grade 3 Arlington Matron last summer.

I find some of the other races on the card more appealing from a betting perspective. Here's a quick look at some of the more playable races:

First race: Speed tends to carry in the first race at Fair Grounds. In a race devoid of speed, the advantage should be even more pronounced. The edge goes to Wings True, who may wake up at a price following four consecutive off-the-board finishes.

Fourth race: Partly cloudy weather is forecast over the next few days in New Orleans, suggesting this maiden race should remain on turf and likely be contested on a firm course. Gentlemen J J has the most accomplished dirt form, and first-time starter Longship won a training race from just off the pace Dec. 23. Taking into account value, the choice is Humble Lightning. A close fourth on the main track Dec. 22, he moves to the grass for a skilled turf trainer in James Danaher. Danaher has won with 7 of his last 20 turf runners, generating a $5.50 ROI.

Sixth race: A split of the fourth race, this maiden turf race for 3-year-olds isn't filled with as much quality. Five of the 10 runners come off losses of more than 10 lengths, and some of the others are inexperienced or coming from lesser tracks. The Sherminator, outrun twice in maiden races in Kentucky, may come alive with a surface switch from dirt to turf. He is a son of El Prado, the leading sire of 2002.

Seventh race: This 5 1/2-furlong grass race is so wide open that virtually every starter has a shot at victory. Mt Waverly, like many of his opponents, has raced primarily on dirt. He raced once on grass last summer at Arlington, fading in a route. Going a shorter distance, he should be more effective. He is in strong form and training swiftly for trainer Mike Stidham.

Eighth race: The Steve Asmussen-trained Forty Niner Deeds, a stakes winner at Sunland Park, is unraced since finishing 10th in the Lone Star Derby in May. Look for him to fire fresh. He is owned by the Asmussen family and was prepped for his return to the races at their farm in Laredo, Texas. Horses leave there ready to run. He is not the most probable winner because of his lack of recent action, but he should outperform expectations - something that can never be said about the Saints.