04/01/2003 12:00AM

Handle, purses take hit

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Taken alone, the losses at Fair Grounds during the season that ended Monday were not devastating, but you wouldn't know it from the mood at the racetrack.

After years of growth, Fair Grounds is now mired in decline. Purses are down, field sizes have shrunk, and horsemen are disgruntled. Hit hard by skyrocketing purses at Delta Downs, once an inconsequential rival in western Louisiana, Fair Grounds also felt the effects of an improved purse structure at Oaklawn Park and a rebound at Gulfstream Park's winter meet.

Gulfstream leaned heavily on the new Palm Meadows training center, which housed many horses that might otherwise have raced in New Orleans.

Average daily handle on Fair Grounds races from all sources fell 5.4 percent, from $4,501,143 last year to $4,256,580 this season. The average daily purse distribution dropped 2.7 percent, from $269,409 to $262,267. Accustomed to purse increases during the late 1990's, Fair Grounds horsemen were hit instead with a decrease in the middle of the meet.

Average field size remained on par with last year - 8.15 last season, 8.19 this year - but was down about a horse per race from peak levels three years ago. Field sizes faded after Delta announced a 40-percent purse increase in February, making many races there more attractive than at Fair Grounds.

Fair Grounds eliminated Monday racing in December, and could trim more races next year by cutting race days in March and reducing daily programs from the standard 10 races.

An ontrack slot-machine parlor is driving Delta's surge, and Fair Grounds, the only Louisiana racetrack without a slots license, hopes slot machines can halt its skid. Fair Grounds has tried for slots the last two years and failed to gain state legislative approval, but has filed another bill. Even if approved by the state, Fair Grounds still faces a parish referendum and a licensing suitability investigation.

Track president Bryan Krantz said the Fair Grounds could contract and become a regional track if current trends continue, and without purse increases next season changes seem inevitable.

"I love New Orleans, and the people there were great," said trainer Scott Hansen, who came to Fair Grounds from Southern California this winter. "But there's one thing wrong, and that's purses. You can't run for that kind of money against that quality of competition."