01/02/2006 12:00AM

New Orleans regulars shift focus to Florida

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Steve Asmussen raced part of his large stable at Gulfstream Park in 2003 and 2004, but not last year. And he didn't plan on doing so this year, until Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc and destruction on New Orleans on Aug. 29.

"We're back in Florida only because Fair Grounds is closed," said Asmussen, who has about 34 horses at the nearby Palm Meadows training center. "The horses we brought, they're some of our best, so we can't have afford to have their training disrupted by the track freezing or having to wait until 10 or 11 in the morning to train."

Asmussen is one of a handful of Fair Grounds regulars who sent horses to south Florida after being forced to make contingency plans in the Katrina aftermath. Clearly, the loss of an important winter training base such as Fair Grounds meant that other tracks would get horses who otherwise would have been in New Orleans - and Gulfstream is a primary beneficiary.

"The weather and surface at Fair Grounds were always great," said Asmussen, whose best-known horse at Palm Meadows is Private Vow, a top Kentucky Derby prospect. "But obviously Florida is an acceptable alternative."

Dallas Stewart, a New Orleans native and Fair Grounds regular, came to Gulfstream with 16 horses. He also will have strings at Oaklawn and Turfway.

"Given the circumstances, which are very unfortunate, I'm happy to be here," said Stewart. Among the most accomplished Stewart runners here to race are Cape Hope, Silverfoot, Storm Surge, Flanders Field, Hot Storm, and Songfest.

Wayne Catalano, whose stable typically follows a circuit of Fair Grounds, Arlington, and Hawthorne, has plugged Gulfstream into his schedule to replace Fair Grounds. Catalano has 25 stalls at Palm Meadows.

"Fair Grounds is home, and it was always good to me," said Catalano. "Of course I'm going to miss the food and the people I'm always used to seeing at this time of year. But I've run at Gulfstream before, and we're here to do some good."

Catalano's stakes horses who will run at Gulfstream include Lewis Michael, Injustice, and Trippi Street.

Mark Frostad, trainer for the Canadian powerhouse Sam-Son Farm, and fellow Canadian Mike Doyle also are at Palm Meadows with medium-sized stables. Both had migrated to New Orleans in recent winters.

"I've got 16 horses here, but I don't really know how active we will be," said Frostad. "This is the time of year we kind of regroup after the long year back home. I kind of miss New Orleans, but it's very nice here."

Kentucky-based trainer Paul McGee has returned to Gulfstream after two winters at Fair Grounds. He has three stakes runners among a 10-horse contingent: Suave, a leading candidate for the Feb. 4 Donn Handicap; Honor in War, the millionaire turf veteran; and the 4-year-old filly Eyes on Eddy.

Other trainers in south Florida because of Katrina include Tom Tomillo, who has 14 stalls at Gulfstream, and Becky Maker, who has 11 at Palm Meadows.

Gulfstream racing secretary Dave Bailey said the demand for stall space at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows is always high but exceeded normal standards this year because of the closing of Fair Grounds. Bailey said the influx of stables that otherwise would have gone to New Orleans can only help bolster the caliber of racing at the meet, which runs through April 23.

"The quality should be phenomenal because we've got so many top outfits to draw from," said Bailey. "Nobody wants to capitalize on what happened in New Orleans, but it's a fact of life that everyone is having to live with. We're happy to accommodate the trainers who didn't have anywhere to go after the Fair Grounds closed. The positive for us is that it should help our racing product."