11/29/2001 1:00AM

If it's dirt, it's Desert Demon


NEW ORLEANS - The Fair Grounds overnight - the sheet of paper listing the horses entered in races two days hence - that came out Wednesday looked like it belonged on an index card, not a legal-sized sheet of paper. Seventy-one horses have been entered on Friday's 10-race program, an average of 7.1 horses per race. Things are not supposed to look like this here - last year's meet averaged 9.3 starters per race.

Friday's crunch results from several factors. For starters, many stables here have been hit hard in the last week with upper-respiratory viruses. Also, according to Fair Grounds director of racing Mervin Muniz, many stables are still putting their Fair Grounds strings together and aren't fully ready to start entering. And finally, an increased purse structure at Delta Downs in Vinton, La., is drawing many lower-level horses to western Louisiana, not Fair Grounds.

"Things will get better," Muniz said.

Friday's featured ninth race was the lone event on the program not to suffer from a shortage of entries, with 11 horses entered in the about 1 1/16-mile turf race. A $75,000 claiming option appended to the race's third-level allowance condition helps, as five of the horses were entered for a tag.

Analysis begins with the weather. Turf racing was canceled here Saturday through Monday, and with moisture still in the ground on Wednesday, rain was forecast again here tonight. Generally claimers, the dirt horses of note are Yaeger, Power of Humor, Astrologist, and, particularly, Desert Demon. From the Mike Stidham barn, Desert Demon has been shelved since Sept. 22, when he won a $50,000 claimer at Arlington, but has been working regularly here and can call on substantial back class.

If the race stays on turf, there is no telling who might emerge the winner. What's certain, however, is that this race is loaded with speed, with as many as five front-end types entered. That makes things tough on Fair Grounds-loving Kris's Sleigh, who already was unlucky enough to have been rained out of a start here last weekend. Kris's Sleigh, from the Louie Roussel barn, won an optional claimer at this same class level here last meet by more than five lengths. Then, he was entered under allowance conditions, but this time around Roussel has put him in for the $75,000. Kris's Sleigh, with Eddie Martin up, fits if he can overcome the pace.

Holy Conflict, off since Sept. 3, could have won three third-level turf allowances this summer at Arlington with better luck. Trainer Gene Cilio put a solid six-furlong breeze into the comebacking Holy Conflict on Nov. 20. He is to be ridden by Frank Lovato Jr.