03/26/2002 12:00AM

Handle, field size dip

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NEW ORLEANS - A decade of growth ended this season at Fair Grounds, where business was down from a year ago in an 89-day meet that concluded Monday. The decline followed nationwide industry trends, but also revealed problems specific to Fair Grounds, in particular increased competition from Delta Downs.

Purses and handle rose steadily here through the 1990's and into last year, but this meet handle, purses, and attendance all fell. The average daily handle from all sources was off almost 8 percent, from $4,889,015 to $4,501,143. Average daily purses, which were reduced in the middle of the meet, fell nearly 2 percent from last year, from $274,055 to $269,409. Average daily attendance was down almost 12 percent, from 2,498 to 2,204.

"Any time you're down, you're going to be disappointed," said Bryan Krantz, the track's president. "But I'm not extremely disappointed."

Fair Grounds business this year is similar to its business three meets ago. "We can hope for things not to get any worse next year," Krantz said.

It is difficult to see business improving right away. Fair Grounds wants slot machines to help grow again, but it won't get them next season. Fair Grounds was rebuffed by the Louisiana legislature in a slots bid last spring, and no slots bill is in sight.

Delta Downs, the western Louisiana track that runs head-to-head with Fair Grounds in the winter, opened a slots casino this year that raised its purses to unprecedented levels, inducing many horsemen to forgo or reduce participation at Fair Grounds.

Pressure from Delta and a nationwide horse shortage contributed to a decline in field size. The average number of starters per race declined 8 percent this year, from 8.86 to 8.15.

Fair Grounds turned to its turf course to help fill races, and more turf races were run than ever before. By mid-meet the turf wore down, and to help preserve the course fields were limited to eight starters for several weeks.

Krantz said management will explore ways to maximize use of its turf course. The track also hopes to raise field sizes by eliminating Monday racing during the first month of its next meet.

On the track, Eddie Martin won his first riding title after finishing second three years in a row. Martin's business got a big boost from the powerful Tom Amoss stable. But Amoss, an eight-time leading trainer here, was supplanted atop the standings by Steve Asmussen, who won 68 races to Amoss's 65.

Nelson Bunker Hunt was the leading owner at the meet, and Repent captured the Louisiana Derby and Parade Leader won the New Orleans Handicap.