03/25/2005 12:00AM

Meet gets passing grade from Soth

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NEW ORLEANS - Randall Soth has one overriding impression of his first season as president and general manager of Fair Grounds Race Course: How quickly the meet was over.

"It flew by," said Soth, who is used to the marathon summer meets at Calder. "This just went by so fast. It's hard to believe it's over."

The adage "time flies when you're having fun" certainly applies to the man Churchill Downs Inc. hired to run Fair Grounds. Soth manipulated the stakes schedule to feature four days of multiple stakes races and hit paydirt immediately. Two of those days took in the largest and third-largest single-day handle in Fair Grounds history.

"I'm very happy with how the meet went," said Soth. "It was a real opportunity for me. This was my first year in a position like this. We walked in here six weeks before it started and its success is a credit to the staff and the employees. It was an incredible team effort."

Soth still thinks the stakes schedule can be fine-tuned. The last week of the meet turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic in the wake of the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap.

"I don't want to make light of a half-million dollar stakes race, but we may try to reschedule that," said Soth. "We had the opening day on Thanksgiving and our four big event days, but I really wasn't sure about how Easter would be received as a closing day. In the simulcast world all the [New York] OTB's are closed for Easter and they're also closed for Palm Sunday, so we're looking for something during the closing week of the meet that would create an urgency among people in the New Orleans area, who won't be able to see another live race for eight months.

"We're looking for something to carry that fervor into next year. Perhaps if we move the Muniz back to the last day of the meet it will create that excitement."

One of the biggest problems has been finding horses to fill the racing cards. The horse shortage forced the track to run only four days a week in November and December and the last two weeks of the season. Soth hopes to return to a five-day week for the next meet.

"One thing I talked about with racing secretary Ben Huffman is that the stall application process last year was probably done a little bit quicker than you would normally like," said Soth. "We're going to pay a little more attention next time and make sure the horses who get stalls are deserving of them. Looking at the upcoming season we've got to kind of look around the country and try to create a roster of individuals that fits your racing program, sort of like Bobby Knight going out on a recruiting program, trying to get the best horses we can to compete at Fair Grounds."

CDI wants to link Fair Grounds to Churchill, giving Kentucky horsemen extra incentive to run at Fair Grounds.

" 'Get on the bus' is our motto," he said.

The key to the future of CDI's stewardship of Fair Grounds is installing slot machines on the premises. Though a measure allowing slot machines at Fair Grounds was approved by referendum, some of the details are still up in the air, and earlier this week a city official suggested that another referendum should be held to work out the differences.

At the beginning of the meet Soth expressed hope that slots could be integrated into the Fair Grounds next season. Now it looks like that could be another year away.

"Not really knowing the timeline of the process," he admitted, "from what we've been told and what we've encountered thus far it's probably pretty much in line with what we originally scheduled for. We have to go through the city planning commission and we hope for that procedure to go pretty well for us. It's a process that we're going through with political leaders and some community leaders."

CDI plans to spend $10 million reconfiguring the plant to accommodate slot machines as well as other features such as a food court. Another $4 million is earmarked for backstretch improvements.

"We have contractors and architects out here," said Soth. "I wanted to get the most value out of the dollars that we have allocated for the backstretch improvement. We plan to improve the existing structures and create new spaces. It's basically a two-year process; over the next two years we're investing $4 million into strictly quality-of-life improvements on the backstretch. We'll probably open the barn area for next meet some time around mid October. There will be a new dormitory facility for the backstretch workers."