06/24/2003 11:00PM

Norman the dominant force


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Handicappers have a wealth of tracks on which to choose to wager. Arlington Park, Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, Lone Star, and Hollywood Park are five of my current favorites.

On Friday, another track starts vying for betting dollars when Louisiana Downs opens for its 2003 season. Because the track has added more than 900 slot machines, the racing should be richer, deeper and better. If nothing else, there will be a lot of racing. Twelve races are carded for Friday, including one stakes. That stakes, the $50,000 King's Court, features a rematch of That Tat and Doctor Mike, the first two finishers from the May 3 Ford Express Stakes at Lone Star Park.

Although I prefer the racing product elsewhere, Louisiana Downs does periodically offer good wagering opportunities. That is not the case so much in the King's Court. That Tat and Doctor Mike will be heavily bet stick-outs.

Contention runs deeper in some of the other races. Furthermore, the quality and depth of the racing should improve when Lone Star Park closes in the coming weeks and Louisiana Downs will face less competition for horses. Here is a look at the card, and trends from last year's meet.

First, the trends: Harrah's owns Louisiana Downs, but the man who owns the racing at Louisiana Downs is trainer Cole Norman. He has won five consecutive trainer titles, and last year won with 125 of 400 starters (31 percent). He dominated to such an extent that he had 89 more winners than the runner-up, Steve Asmussen, who went 36 for 164.

Other trainers who won at more than a 20 percent rate with at least five winners included Larry Robideaux (20 for 59, 34 percent), Ronnie Campisano (12 for 38, 31 percent), Lonnie Briley (9 for 38, 24 percent), Ike Bailey (9 for 25, 36 percent), Kelly Broussard (7 for 26, 37 percent), J. Pervis Hebert (7 for 33, 21 percent), Doris Hebert (6 for 20, 30 percent), and Stan Seagle (6 for 16, 38 percent).

Because of Norman's dominance, the winningest riders at Louisiana Downs are typically those who ride his horses. Gerard Melancon was the leader last year with 116 victories, followed by Kirk LeBlanc with 95 wins, Glen Murphy with 54, Jamie Theriot with 53, and Tim Doocy with 52. Of Melancon's victories, 57 came for Norman. Theriot and Anthony Lovato rode most of the other Norman horses.

This year, Theriot has been the main go-to guy for Norman at Oaklawn and Lone Star. If that trend continues, he should in contention for leading rider.

LeBlanc had a fantastic season in 2002 considering that neither Norman nor Asmussen used him regularly. He picked up most of his wins from the smaller Louisiana Downs stables and gained more mounts than any other rider.

In terms of post positions, last year Louisiana Downs slightly favored horses breaking from the inside. By contrast, posts were irrelevant on turf.

Post 1 won at an 18 percent rate in dirt sprints, while most of the other starting positions scored in the 9-12 percent range. The poor draws at Louisiana Downs last year came on the far outside. Posts 11 and 12 in sprints were disadvantageous.

Posts 1 and 2 were the places to be in main-track routes. Post 2 was the winningest post with 18 percent winners, but the inside post had the highest in-the-money rate at 52 percent.

Although posts would seemingly be as important on turf, that wasn't the case last year at Louisiana Downs. Horses won from everywhere on the grass course, meaning value may be found on outside runners in turf routes, because bettors regularly downgrade the chances of horses with wide draws. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get too enthused by some of the outside runners entered on turf for Friday.

In some of the other races: Oak Hall is the class of the first race, an open allowance for Louisiana-bred horses, after running eighth to Bluesthestandard in the Grade 3 Texas Mile. Either La Vista or Mexican Moonlight should complete the daily double in the second. And Ashe Ole' figures to fire fresh in the fourth race after running third in a tougher race at Oaklawn Park.

The post-position data from 2002 gets a test in the third, when Halo Avenue attempts to win from post 12 in a five-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds. She would be a slam dunk with a better draw, but as it stands, she is less of a certainty.

Halo Avenue finished third in her debut last month at Evangeline Downs, a race that has produced four next-out winners from five starters. If she wins from the 12 hole Friday, a post that won at less than a 4 percent rate in 2002, she will further legitimize the strength of that race.