08/31/2005 12:00AM

Horsemen with ties to La. wait and worry


The full-scale disaster in New Orleans brought on by Hurricane Katrina has jeopardized Fair Grounds Race Course's upcoming season and left many horsemen with connections to the track and the city mulling plans for the winter and worrying about friends and family in Louisiana.

Churchill Downs Inc., which purchased Fair Grounds just last year, had no further details on the track's condition Wednesday. Video of the racetrack broadcast on television showed a roof shorn from the grandstand and significant debris and damage throughout the grounds, with water lapping on the infield and in the barn area. The video footage was shot Tuesday morning, before a levee break on the Orleans Parish line released more water from Lake Pontchartrain into the city.

"We have much work to do in order to assess the status of our business operations and put in place a plan to move forward in Louisiana," Tom Meeker, president and chief executive officer of CDI, said in a statement. "As such, we will reserve detailed comment on this matter until such time as we are able to conduct on-site inspections and more accurately gauge the impact Hurricane Katrina had on our Louisiana operations. Given the difficulty of accessing areas affected by the storm, it could take several days or weeks before we have an accurate assessment."

Even if Fair Grounds were able to ready its racetrack and barn area for its meet, scheduled to begin Nov. 24, the track would face a mountain of other issues brought on by the storm. The storm obliterated the city's infrastructure, and officials have suggested it could be months before residents can return to their homes.

One of those residents is trainer Mike Stidham, his home located in the same neighborhood as Fair Grounds. Stidham had no idea how his house had fared, and shrugged when asked what he'd do if the Fair Grounds meet were to be canceled.

"What's happened there is unbelievable," he said.

Trainer Wayne Catalano grew up in New Orleans's Ninth Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina's floodwaters.

"All my immediate family look like they lost everything," said Catalano, currently based at Arlington. "They left, they're gone - my brother, my mother, my sisters all went, but they lost everything."

Catalano said he returned home Tuesday night and sat down to watch scenes of the devastation on television.

"I just sat there and cried," he said. "To think about everything - it's real sad, it's real bad. You grow up there, you go back there, you love the food, the culture - everything's wiped out."

In Saratoga, several horsemen who spend the winter in New Orleans were glued to television sets, watching the destruction. Some lost homes, while one said he has not heard from family members since Tuesday.

Edward Moss, who works as a hotwalker for trainer Al Stall, said his mother, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews are based in New Orleans. He said he has not heard from any family member since the levees were breached.

"I talked to them the first day, they were all right; I don't know about now," Moss said. "It's been rough. I don't know what's going on."

Trainer Dallas Stewart said he and about 10 family members have lost homes in New Orleans. Stewart was thankful that nobody in his family was hurt; many of them will move to Louisville, where Stewart also has a home.

"Everybody got out of there, nobody got hurt, so we're just going to have to rebuild," Stewart said. "I don't know if we can rebuild in New Orleans. My brother and sister will probably come up and live with me in Kentucky."

CDI's statement said that Fair Grounds and its affiliated businesses were insured against property loss and business interruptions. CDI has set up a hotline for Fair Grounds employees displaced by the storm: (877) 244-5536.

There were no horses or backstretch personnel at the track at the time of the hurricane. The bulk of the state's breeding industry, located north of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain, came through the storm in better shape than the city. While there was significant wind and storm damage around the horse farms, the land there was spared from destructive flooding.

- additional reporting by David Grening