12/01/2004 12:00AM

One Krantz is out, another stays on

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Trainer Steve Asmussen is back at Fair Grounds to defend his training title.

NEW ORLEANS - The transition between the private ownership of the Krantz family and Churchill Downs Incorporated, which bought Fair Grounds in October, hit a speed bump last week, when former Fair Grounds executive vice president Vicki Krantz told the New Orleans Times Picayune she quit, saying, "It just didn't work out."

Former Fair Grounds president Bryan Krantz, Vicki's husband, has been retained as a consultant for a three-year, $4 million deal. He explained that Vicki never actually worked for CDI.

"I don't know there was actually an opportunity to quit," he said. "There'd been an indication of interest in seeing her continue in the operation, but she reached a point where she wasn't really comfortable with how things were transpiring.

"Probably about the third week of October she declined her interest to continue. She was never an employee. I echo Vicki's sentiment that they've been professional and polite at CDI. It was an untenable situation."

Though Bryan no longer works at the track, he is on call for consultation as needed.

"I've got a consulting arrangement for three years for anything they want advice about," he said. "I'm available to answer their questions. I've gotten pulled in on discussions of a broad range of issues. I have no set responsibility or area of responsibility."

Some miss training races

One of the first changes CDI made in the way Fair Grounds operates was to eliminate training races. Up until this year, all first-time starters had to compete in a morning training race in order to start at Fair Grounds. Now all a horse needs is gate approval to start.

"Our first priority was to increase the size of the fields," said Fair Grounds general manager Randy Soth. "Many of the trainers who work with Louisiana-breds are stabled in the western part of the state, and making them come to compete in a training race in order to run here is a disincentive to race here."

Trainers saw both sides of the issue when discussing the decision to do away with training races.

"Your horse almost had like a race over the track," said Neil Howard, "I suppose there were benefits each way, but I don't see a real difference."

"There were advantages to having them," said Sam David, "and I can see why some trainers wouldn't want to ship out here just to run in a training race. But I had horses nick themselves and get injured in training races. If you're going to take the chance with them, you might as well be going for the money."

Going for the money is the biggest reason cited by those opposed to doing away with training events.

"The bottom line is the handle is everything," said Al Kowall, a longtime bettor. "Management will realize it was a mistake when they see the handle drop on maiden races. I've been in the game for over 40 years as an owner, trainer, jockey's agent, and always as a bettor. The bettors love the training races. No big bettor bets into a race unless they feel they have better information than the rest of the public, and the training races offered that."

Asmussen settling in nicely

December brought a blast of wintry cold to the Fair Grounds backstretch Wednesday. Exercise riders came to work wearing heavy sweatshirts and reindeer sweaters, and the Thoroughbreds went to the track eagerly for their morning works.

Steve Asmussen, who became the first trainer to break the 500-victory mark for a year last month, leaned on the fence and watched his horses go through their workouts with a peaceful expression on his face.

"It's great to be back at the Fair Grounds," he said.

Asmussen, the defending Fair Grounds champion trainer, has 44 stalls on the backstretch and horses that fit most of the conditions on the Fair Grounds racing calendar. Asmussen refused to speculate on how many victories he might rack up in the last month of the year.

"Whatever the final number is, I'll be happy with it," he said.

Asmussen said he noticed that the cold snap had his horses perked up.

"I don't know what it is, maybe just the reaction of the people around them," he said, "but when the weather changes, the horses seem to respond. After a long hot summer the change to the cooler weather has an effect. You really see a difference in late February or early March, when the weather turns really nice again."