11/20/2001 12:00AM

Meet opens with mixed forecast

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NEW ORLEANS - Fair Grounds opens its 2001-2002 meet Thursday with perhaps the best colony of horses to stable here in years. The quality of racing in New Orleans has been ticking upward since purses began rising a decade ago, and with the addition this season of several top stables, racing should peak this winter.

"On paper, at least, it's the best group we've had," said track president Bryan Krantz.

But no matter how high the quality of its product, Fair Grounds' bottom line has been stung by a weakened national economy, heavy competition from other forms of gambling in the region, and a decline in revenues from ontrack video poker machines. "It's going to be a double-digit down year," Krantz said.

The track suffered a blow in the spring when a measure to bring slot machines to Fair Grounds died in the state legislature. Other Louisiana tracks have been approved for slots and are expected to experience significant boosts to their purse accounts. Krantz said the slots bill should come up again in the spring.

"Slots are going to become a key component in our future growth," he said.

Still, daily purses at the start of this meet will average $278,000, up 5 percent from the start of last season. Director of racing Mervin Muniz received more than 3,800 applications for the track's 1,900 stalls.

A strong group of newcomers is headed by Todd Pletcher, who has 30 stalls here. But the training race should come down to eight-time champion Tom Amoss and Steve Asmussen, the co-winners of last year's title. Amoss and Asmussen square off Thursday in the $75,000 Thanksgiving Day Handicap. Asmussen starts Littleexpectations and Amoss saddles Robin de Nest. But Robin de Nest must get past Bonapaw, the race's defending champion and likely favorite.

Last year's leading jockey, Lonnie Meche, returns, but he'll have a tough time repeating if Robby Albarado stays injury free this winter. Albarado will begin riding here after the Churchill meet ends this weekend.

The meet highlight is the $750,000 Louisiana Derby on March 10. As it did last year, Fair Grounds will pay a $1 million bonus to a horse that sweeps the Louisiana and Kentucky derbies.

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