11/26/2002 12:00AM

New front office team out hustling


NEW ORLEANS - In the heyday of the 1990's, races at Fair Grounds used to fill themselves. By 11 a.m., the entry box would bulge, a day's races would be drawn - at lunchtime.

Not last year. At times, Fair Grounds racing officials struggled to cobble together bettable programs. Field size was down, and with it handle. This year, the track feels some urgency to make more out of the available horse population, and with that in mind there have been serious changes in the racing office.

Fair Grounds hired a new stakes coordinator, Ben Huffman, the racing secretary at Keeneland who has strong connections with Kentucky- and New York-based trainers. To make inroads with Louisiana trainers, Fair Grounds brought in Jason Boulet, a former jockey agent with strong ties to central Louisiana.

The changes were announced shortly before Mervin Muniz, the track's director of racing, was diagnosed with cancer, for which he continues receiving treatment. Muniz is back at work full time and is feeling well right now. His health will not impede his work, he said, nor does the realignment of the racing office mean he is stepping back from his usual responsibilities.

"I'm not cutting down at all," Muniz said. "In the end, the buck still stops here."

But this year, Fair Grounds will more actively hustle horses to fill races.

"This is a new strategy," said Boulet. "I'm going to the backstretch every morning to talk about extra races, things like that. I'm from Lafayette, and I want to keep the Louisiana-bred people in touch with us. I know the Delta deal is real good for them, but we want them to know we're an option."

Delta Downs, on the strength of revenue from recently installed slot machines, is offering far higher purses than it ever has before and threatens to take horses away from Fair Grounds races.

Meanwhile, Huffman should bring a strengthened rapport with the many Kentucky horsemen on the grounds.

"There's a lot of Kentucky people down there, and I know most of them through Churchill and Keeneland," said Huffman, who is scheduled to arrive here later this week after the final day of entries at Churchill. "I think my ties there are going to help everybody involved."

Catalano and Calabrese are back

Wayne Catalano would rather forget the last time he stabled at Fair Grounds. Two seasons ago, Catalano had a significant number of horses here for his lone owner, Frank Calabrese, but after a run of bad luck, Calabrese insisted on pulling all the horses from Fair Grounds and shipping to Gulfstream. Catalano complied, but it was a tough deal.

Catalano and Calabrese spent last winter in Florida, but now they are back and ready for action, though to what degree, Catalano isn't yet certain.

"It all depends on my man," he said. "If Frank says go, we're going full force."

Arlington followers know what that means. Catalano has won the training title there two years in a row, Calabrese the owners' title the last three seasons. This past meet, they set records for wins at the meet, winning races in bunches in a frenzy of claiming action.

With 35 stalls here, Catalano has a stronger presence at the meet than ever before, and he has room for new claims. He and Calabrese also have some higher quality horses like Golden Antigua, who runs in a turf allowance opening day, and 2-year-olds Valiant Anna and My Calabrese.

Martin back on firmer ground

Quick - who was leading rider last season at Fair Grounds? If Eddie Martin's name didn't leap to mind, don't worry. Quiet for much of the year, Martin does his best work at Fair Grounds, and after three straight second-place finishes, he won a riding title last season, beating out Robby Albarado by nine wins.

After riding at Keeneland this spring, Martin shifted his tack to Delaware Park for the first time. He held his own, but the trip wasn't an outright success.

"The East Coast is a lot different," said Martin's agent, Bobby Kelly, a former assistant to trainer Louie Roussel. "There are a lot of stable riders there and short fields. People don't like dealing with, 'Who's my rider going to be in this race?' "

Kelly has good connections here, and Martin, who will ride the card opening day, figures to have another strong season. Kelly said Martin will ride regularly for - among others - Tom Amoss, Louie Roussel, Ronny Werner, Billy Badgett, and Mike Pino.

Green Fee leads turf division

Green Fee is back at Fair Grounds for the third time, and this time it is worth noting.

Green Fee ran in maiden races here in 1999 and won an allowance race the next season, but now, having beaten Forbidden Apple in the Kelso and finishing a close fifth in the Breeders' Cup Mile, Green Fee ranks as one of the best horses on the grounds this winter.

Trainer Danny Peitz said over the weekend that Green Fee has remained in light training since the Breeders' Cup, and Peitz will point him to Fair Grounds series of turf races for older horses.

That would mean Green Fee's first start at the meet would come in the Jan. 6 Colonel Bradley, followed by the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup and, if things go well, the $700,000 Explosive Bid Handicap.

"He's had shins, an ankle, a really bad curbed hock, and he was off a whole year," Peitz said. "He's more sound now than he's ever been before."

- Fair Grounds will launch a newly designed website this week. It can be accessed at www.fgno.com.