11/26/2004 1:00AM

Opening-day card plays to packed house


Fair Grounds opened its first day under the new management of Churchill Downs Inc. on Thursday with a bang. The crowd of 7,465 that filled the grandstand to the brim was the third-largest attendance in the eight-year-old history of the new building. The packed house created the kind of shoulder-to-shoulder buzz among fans that recalls racing's glory days. It was a far cry from last season's gloomy opening day, which drew a much smaller crowd against the backdrop of long-simmering unrest from horsemen over a suit that would force the track into bankruptcy.

"It's really gratifying to see the people of New Orleans support us like this," said Randy Soth, track president and general manager. "It's been an emotional roller coaster. I was apprehensive leading up to this day, but now I'm feeling satisfaction."

Churchill has started to make improvements on the backstretch - sprucing up the track kitchen, repairing barns and dormitories, and fixing up the chaplain's office, as well as hiring more people to clean up the common facilities. A $4 million rebuilding program is planned to overhaul the backstretch area next summer.

"Many of the employees never leave the area, and take all their meals at the track kitchen," Soth noted. "We want them to be as comfortable as possible."

The efforts by Churchill Downs management are being well received.

"This is a whole new ball game," said trainer Tom Amoss. "You're talking about a proven winner like Churchill Downs coming in, a whole management team. These guys are pros."

Jockey Gerard Melancon said Soth met with the jockeys on opening day and told them his door would always be open.

"He seemed like a first-class person," said Melancon. "He said if we need anything come talk to him. Not many GM's do that."

Though Soth emphasized Churchill's commitment to customer service at Fair Grounds, some patrons were angry they were not able to place bets because of long lines and lack of tellers.

"I've only been able to place two bets," said Steve Watson of New Orleans after Thursday's feature race. Watson said he comes to the track every opening day. "But this year the lines are so long, I keep getting shut out."

Soth pointed to a contract with Autotote that runs through next season that limits the number of live tellers at the track.

"We have 48 mutuel clerks," he pointed out, "but if I had 150 more I'd have no machines to place them at," he said.

The other problem facing Fair Grounds is that a lack of horses is making it difficult to fill races.

"It's always going to be a little tougher at the beginning of the meet, when horses are still coming in," said racing secretary Ben Huffman. "We should be getting bigger fields as soon as Churchill closes." Saturday was the final day of Churchill's fall meet.

The Fair Grounds backstretch has 1,867 stalls not counting Louis Roussel's barn, which he owns himself and accounts for about 40 more stalls. Roughly 300 stalls on the Fair Grounds backstretch are still empty.

"We're waiting for Churchill Downs to end its season," said Jason Boulet, assistant director of racing. "We have at least six or seven major outfits still scheduled to come in."

Ole Rebel kicks back

Ole Rebel was back in his stall on the Fair Grounds backstretch Friday morning, eating his feed with a champion's gusto after winning the opening-day stakes, the Thanksgiving Handicap, in a thrilling three-way photo finish with Wildcat Shoes and the 4-5 favorite, Beau's Town.

"He came back great," said trainer Andrew Leggio Jr., who sent out Ole Rebel, a 5-year-old Carson City horse, to win several stakes at Louisiana Downs earlier this year.

Leggio had to sweat out a photo finish in which the top three horses were separated by two noses.

"I had to wait until they put up the number," he said. They were all digging in at the end."

Leggio has no immediate plans for Ole Rebel's next race.

"We're going to stay right here. I'm not looking at anything beyond that right now," he said. "I'm not pointing him toward anything else. I'm going to take it one race at a time."