11/24/2003 1:00AM

No horse shortage for opener


NEW ORLEANS - Ben Huffman, the new racing secretary at Fair Grounds, sat staring at his computer screen at 8 a.m. Monday, watching entries for Thursday's card here slowly trickle into the system.

"It's slow, but we just opened," Huffman said.

By the time the entry box closed about three hours later, it was slow no more. Ninety-five horses, including also-eligibles, were entered for opening day at Fair Grounds, a relief to Huffman and to a racetrack hoping to break out of the cloud surrounding the inception of its 132nd season.

Delta Downs, with its slots-enriched purses, has siphoned statebred horses away from the Fair Grounds program. Worse, Fair Grounds felt compelled to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year after the state's horsemen's group won a lawsuit that will cost Fair Grounds millions of dollars when a settlement is reached. Handle and purses have dropped in recent seasons after cresting in the late 1990's, and the last thing this troubled racetrack wants is to stumble out of the gate.

It appears it will not.

Huffman, who heads a revamped racing office here, said he was pleased with the opening day card.

"I would've liked to have had a couple more, but we did okay," he said.

Louisiana-bred races, the niche that Delta's surge hurts most, filled well. A 2-year-old maiden race drew a full field of 12, and an entry-level allowance drew nine.

But for the first two weeks of the meet, a cap of nine runners in turf races will restrict field size. To preserve its turf course, Fair Grounds starts this meet with the inner rail on the course placed at its outermost position, drastically reducing the course's width.

Three grass races were carded opening day, but the feature is a six-furlong sprint, the $60,000-added Thanksgiving Day Handicap. The race has a star, Posse, a 3-year-old colt who finished fourth last month in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Bonapaw, seeking his third Thanksgiving Day win, also was entered, along with Aloha Bold, Gracie's Dancer, Price of Honour, and Electrode.

The Thanksgiving Day Handicap is the traditional opening day centerpiece for a racetrack that takes pride in its history. But Thursday starts a new era for Fair Grounds. Gone is Mervin Muniz, the longtime director of racing who died last summer. Gone are the glory years of the 1990's, when Fair Grounds could seem to do no wrong. Slot machines lie just over the horizon, but where this track is headed remains uncertain.

"It's a transitional time," said Fair Grounds president Bryan Krantz.

Let it begin.