11/16/2007 12:00AM

Katrina in past, it's blue skies ahead

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Lynn Roberts/Hodges Photography
New Orleans city council member Shelley Midura (left), Mayor C. Ray Nagin (center), and Fair Grounds president Randy Soth open the temporary slots parlor on Sept. 21.
NEW ORLEANS - "A year of transitions" is the now familiar refrain for New Orleanians, more so for those associated with the Fair Grounds. Three years ago, it was the sale of the track to Churchill Downs, two years ago it was a season lost to Hurricane Katrina, and last year was the struggle to begin racing again.

Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Fair Grounds, has planned another year of transitions for the track's 2007-08 meet, which opens Thanksgiving Day: from video poker to slot machines, temporary facilities to permanent homes, traditional Thanksgiving reservations by phone to eBay bidding on prime dining areas.

The construction of a permanent building for the slot facility is the most obvious difference, with a large area of what was parking spaces now fenced in for construction. The building will add 30,000 square feet in total, 15,000 of which will house the slot facility. The Fair Grounds currently has 250 slot machines in use in what was the OTB building, and the addition will be the permanent home for the 750 slot machines approved by local voters in a 2003 referendum.

The horsemen have seen what is happening, and put in more than 3,400 stall applications for the 1,800 available stalls. There are already 1,000 horses on the backside of the track, and the mood is decidedly upbeat.

"There's lots of work to do, but they'll make it," said Connie Tassistro, who has been training horses in Louisiana since 1948. "They know what they're doing. They're spending a lot of money, trying to do right. The purses are beautiful; they've got the slot machines now."

The purse structure remains unchanged from last year, an average of $350,000 a day.

"The response by the horsemen has been nothing short of fabulous," said Randall Soth, Fair Grounds president. "I like to be in that position because you can be more particular about the constituency of the horsemen and horses, making the backside balanced to fit the racing program."

The fresh appeal of the Fair Grounds should be reflected in the racing product, with Bill Mott planning to return after many years away and Richard Dutrow, who had a small string here in 2002, returning with greater numbers. Joining those two are more than a half-dozen newcomers, including Larry Jones.

"We came in last year for the Lecomte [with Hard Spun], and liked the track surface," Jones said. "The purses are good and we've got more grass horses than we've ever had."

Veteran Fair Grounds trainer Wesley Hawley concurs: "The track is good. Maybe a little faster than I want, but the horses are staying sound. And the grass course is looking fantastic."

The construction process and beginning of the slot era will result in still other transitions. The racing office will be moved to a trailer on the backside, and, more pertinently to racing fans, there will be free grandstand admission, which formerly was $2.

While the free grandstand admission will get no complaints, there have been grumblings about the policy for making Thanksgiving Day dining reservations, a longstanding tradition for many families on opening day. Reservations in previous years had been accepted by phone, starting at an appointed hour, and jammed the switchboard at the Fair Grounds for most of the day.

Churchill Downs's response was to put many of the prime tables up for auction on eBay, for a beginning price of $400 for a table for four. The price includes food, tip, and a donation to two charities, the Louisiana SPCA and the Make-a-Wish Foundation of the Texas Gulf Coast and Louisiana.

Fair Grounds regular Anthony Terranova, whose family often goes to the track for opening day, disagreed with the new policy.

"I don't think it was right," he said. "They've got people who go every year who can't afford to pay for a table and have fun. And the way they did it was wrong. A lot of people don't have eBay accounts."

Some patrons went for the auction, with 96 of the 121 tables available purchased, most near the original price, and none above $600. The remaining 25 tables were made available for purchase through phone-in reservations, along with a block of tables that had never been put up for auction. The non-bidding public signified it had forgiven, with calls coming in steadily to reserve the tables for opening day of the 136th racing season.

Fair Grounds trainer Michael Stidham, who calls New Orleans home, summed up the feeling at the track: "The slots are in, and purses are strong starting out. Things are looking better at the Fair Grounds and the city in general. Big improvements. Things are really coming back, maybe a little quicker than people had thought."