03/28/2005 1:00AM

Handle up for first time since '01

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NEW ORLEANS - Fair Grounds, which concluded its 2004-05 season Sunday, enjoyed a successful meet in its first season under management of Churchill Downs Inc., showing an increase in all-sources handle for the first time since the track's 2000-01 meet.

"We have exceeded our expectations for the first year," said Andy Skehan, the chief operating officer of Churchill Downs Inc.

All-sources handle on Fair Grounds races, including offtrack betting, averaged $4.18 million per day, up 5.3 percent from the $3.97 million wagered during its prior meet. Ontrack handle averaged $221,471 per day, an increase of 2.5 percent.

Ontrack attendance averaged 2,104 per day, down 4.5 percent from last season, but the track's president and general manager, Randall Soth, offered an explanation for part of the decrease.

"I made the decision to let children under 12 in for free," said Soth.

Purses averaged $267,784 per day, up 3.1 percent from last season. Non-stakes purses were increased by 12 percent over the last 12 days of the season, the first in-season purse increase at Fair Grounds since 2001.

Louisiana Derby Day brought in the biggest handle in Fair Grounds history, $11.3 million.

Finding horses to fill the races remains a problem.

"It was almost exactly the same as last year," said Ben Huffman, the director of racing. Fields averaged 8.32 horses per race, up less than 1 percent from last season.

Churchill Downs plans to invest $4 million in backstretch improvements over the next two years, including a new dormitory for track workers. The company is working with city and state agencies to finalize permits to operate slot machines at the track, with $10 million earmarked for a remodeling program to include slots and a food court.

Jockey Robby Albarado won 101 races to notch his sixth Fair Grounds riding title in eight years, tying Ronald Ardoin's Fair Grounds record. Albarado, who also tied his own record for stakes victories set last year with 13, reached the 100-victory mark for the seventh time.

Steve Asmussen won 67 races to capture his fifth consecutive Fair Grounds training title.

Michael Gill-owned horses won 43 races to give him the owners title. Gill won the most races of any owner since the track began keeping owner statistics in 1991-92.