12/07/2005 1:00AM

Looking beyond a temporary home

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Louisiana Downs
The shortened Fair Grounds meet is marketed by two concerns.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - On the surface, the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs seems to be right on track. Trainer Steve Asmussen leads the standings in search of his sixth straight title. Jockey Robby Albarado, the winner of the last six riding titles, just arrived from Kentucky. And the 15th running of Louisiana Champions Day will be held Saturday.

Even the names of the horses making up the $1 million program are familiar. Witt Ante is shooting for his second consecutive win in the $150,000 Classic. Mr. Sulu goes for a record third win in the $100,000 Turf. Destiny Calls will take on The Beter Man Can in the $100,000 Ladies, and Zarb's Dahar stars in the $100,000 Sprint.

And as usual, Louisiana Champions Day will make up the first major card in a series of big Fair Grounds race days. But this year, something is different. Just as the party is getting started, the meet's end is in sight. Fair Grounds is racing only two months at Louisiana Downs compared with the more than four months it was to have run in an 83-day meet through March at its home track in New Orleans.

Plans had to be altered after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, and a 37-date replacement meet at Louisiana Downs was put together by Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Fair Grounds; Harrah's, which owns Louisiana Downs; and the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

When a second hurricane, Rita, struck a month after Katrina, it damaged Delta Downs in Vinton, the only other winter track in the state. More maneuvering was required, further testing an industry that has thrived over the last decade in Louisiana with the success of Fair Grounds and the installation of slot machines at Louisiana Downs, Delta, and Evangeline in Opelousas.

Tom Amoss, an eight-time leading trainer at Fair Grounds who lost his New Orleans home to Katrina, is confident that Louisiana racing will bounce back.

"I think that Louisiana racing is very important not only to the horsemen of the state but very important to the state as an industry," he said. "I'm very confident that not only will Louisiana racing get stronger, as it has over the last few years, but that we'll see a resurgence at the Fair Grounds as well."

The Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs has about 50 percent of its regular stables in place, with the remainder of outfits supplied by the Louisiana Downs-Oaklawn circuit, said Ben Huffman, racing secretary for Fair Grounds. Missing are a number of stables from Canada and Chicago. Some of the Kentucky stables not on the grounds will be shipping in from Oaklawn, which begins its meet Jan. 20 and has 450 horses on the grounds. There are about 1,550 horses at Louisiana Downs.

"We're averaging close to 10 starters per race, which is approximately a horse and a half more than what we ended up with last year," said Randy Soth, president of Fair Grounds. "The horsemen's response has been fabulous."

Huffman will soon begin recruiting horses for the five graded stakes to be run in January, the most prominent being the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, which will be held two months earlier than usual, on Jan. 7.

"I think the timing is good," said Huffman, noting that the race will fall five weeks after the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and four weeks before the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

"With so many people now, the Donn feeds the Dubai World Cup," Huffman said, "so I'm hoping people might want to get two starts [next] year before they go to Dubai."

Fair Grounds and Harrah's are jointly marketing the meet. Over the first nine race dates, an average of $2.8 million a day has been bet on Fair Grounds races, which includes an average of $161,000 a day bet ontrack at Louisiana Downs.

"Traditionally, at the beginning of the Fair Grounds meet, business is a little slow due to running against Churchill," said Soth. "Our business picks up the week after Churchill closes, and things are starting to trend up. So, I'm reasonably satisfied with the way things are going thus far."

Handle jumped in the past week, with more than $3.2 million bet last Thursday and last Saturday, and $3.4 million last Friday. Over the course of its full meet last year, Fair Grounds handled an average of $4.1 million a day, with $221,481 of that amount bet ontrack in a region with a population of 1.3 million. During the most recent Louisiana Downs meet that ended in October, about $2 million a day was bet, with $199,835 bet ontrack in an immediate market of 250,000 people.

As racing rebuilds, state breeders say they do not expect to be adversely affected by the storms. About 3,400 mares were bred to stallions standing in Louisiana last season, according to Tom Early, executive director of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders' Association. He said he expects a greater number of mares to support the state's 240 stallions in 2006.

In New Orleans, repair work at Fair Grounds has been ongoing. "Right now, we're getting ready to replace the roof," Soth said. "The roof is going to be built under the new code, to withstand 130-mile-an-hour-plus winds."

Soth's goal is to have the facility ready in time for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an international music event usually held the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May.

"Fair Grounds has hosted Jazz Fest for 35 years, and both parties feel that it's imperative that we do whatever we can to make sure this event goes on again this year," said Soth.

Fair Grounds has already reopened five of its 11 offtrack betting parlors, and within the next two weeks, plans are to reopen the OTB in Gretna. In the next 60 to 90 days, parlors in Kenner and Metairie should come back on line, said Soth.

One challenge is staffing. Fair Grounds had 550 people on its payroll before the storm.

"Pretty much everybody you talk to would like to come back and go to work, it's just that they have no place to come back to live in the city," said Soth.

Jerry Reites, a jockey agent whose home was damaged, said that most of Orleans Parish, home of Fair Grounds, has not had electric power restored. He suspects that for next year's meet, people will have to live west of the track, in Jefferson Parish.

"A lot of people who have residences in New Orleans, like myself, they're not going to be habitable for a long time, if at all," said Rick Mocklin, a jockey agent who lost his home as a result of Katrina.

Reites and Mocklin spoke for many when they said how grateful they are to be racing at all this winter. But, like most regulars, they long for the return of racing in New Orleans.

"If we have to live in a tent," Mocklin said, "we'll live in a tent to be able to run there."