Updated on 09/17/2011 10:48PM

Meet opener a more subdued kind of day

Lou Hodges Jr.
Desert Wheat wins the $50,000 Gentilly Stakes on Fair Grounds' opening day at Louisiana Downs.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - Absent the usual Thanksgiving Day party atmosphere, absent even its own racetrack, Fair Grounds began its 2005-2006 racing season on Saturday at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City. Admission here is free, so there is no way of counting how many fans came to the races, but there was plenty of empty space on a pleasant fall day that turned sunny midway through the afternoon.

Bettors here wagered $241,518 on the 10-race card, and total handle for the afternoon was $2,595,695. Last year in New Orleans, an ontrack crowd of 7,465 bet $473,725. Total combined handle was $2,906,168.

If the day felt somewhat strange, it fit the mood of the last three months. Hurricane Katrina knocked everyone in its path for a loop. Fair Grounds, which usually opens Thanksgiving to raucous New Orleans crowds, salvaged the season by leasing the Louisiana Downs racetrack for a 37-day meet. But no one expects this year to feel anything like a typical winter in New Orleans.

"In New Orleans, opening day is a pretty big day," said Fair Grounds president Randy Soth. "It's more a social-type situation than a wagering event, but in terms of the attendance it's one of the biggest days."

It was a big day here for 16-year-old Cody Meche, the younger brother of identical twin jockeys Lonnie and Donnie Meche. Cody Meche just began his career as a jockey in November, and had won just once, but he piloted the Bubba Cascio-trained De's Sweet Dream to a come-from-behind victory in the opener, and won the last on Hero's Glow, the horse who gave him his first career victory.

"I hope there'll be more," said Meche, a 10th-grader who is being home-schooled.

A few New Orleanians were scattered around the track, but the opening-day feature, the $50,000 Gentilly Stakes, went to a Texan. Desert Wheat, at least, trains at trainer Tony Richey's farm in Tyler, Tex., though he is a Louisiana-bred who was purchased in Florida by owner Jerry Lee. A recent third-place finish in an open turf stakes at Keeneland made Desert Wheat the overwhelming favorite in the statebred-restricted Gentilly, and he ran to his odds, posting a rather effortless win under jockey E.J. Perrodin.

"He just cruised by them," Richey said. "It was pretty easy. He won like he was supposed to win."

Desert Wheat, timed in 1:38.22 for about a mile on firm turf, paid $3.20 and won by four lengths over Willtosucceed, who edged Waytogeaux for second.