11/14/2008 12:00AM

Opening day comes up 7's


NEW ORLEANS - It is not every day that one can mingle with the entire dark-suit-clad board of Churchill Downs Inc. and five scantily clad Las Vegas-style showgirls at 8:30 in the morning. But that was the scene Friday at Fair Grounds, where the early opening of the 2008-09 racing season came four hours after the official ribbon-cutting on the new 609-machine slot parlor that has put CDI fully into the casino-gaming business.

This is what CDI must have imagined when the company acquired Fair Grounds out of bankruptcy in 2004. Hurricane Katrina destroyed any initial business models, but the idea was for CDI to fill a void in its fourth-quarter earnings by bringing Fair Grounds into the mix, and now it has not only a racetrack starting a fairly promising meet, but a glitzy slots parlor that on midafternoon Friday was humming with customers.

"This," CDI executive vice president Steve Sexton said, sweeping his hand to the adjacent slots casino after the ribbon was cut, "is only going to strengthen the racing program here."

Calder, another CDI property, eventually will house slot machines, and Fair Grounds has been running a temporary parlor awaiting the completion of the permanent annex. Slots players were welcomed into the building last Saturday, but Friday's ceremony was planned to coincide with both the start of racing and the CDI board meeting later Friday.

And, no, this was not Fair Grounds's traditional Thanksgiving opener, which attracts a surprising amount of local interest for a track with modest regular crowds. But while the throng Friday could not match a regular Thanksgiving Day gathering, the grandstand bustled.

"This does feel good," said Larry Zardes, a groom for trainer Wes Hawley who grew up in New Orleans's Sixth Ward and has been attending opening days here "ever since I can remember."

Zardes expressed the satisfaction of horseplayers everywhere when the actual animals replace television monitors: "Hey, when you're used to the OTBs, this is really real."

The rain that was forecast two days ago held off until 11 on Friday morning, when the skies opened for the first of several times during the middle of the day.

"You have to continually stay on top of this track to keep it tight and sealed," Fair Grounds trackman Javier Barajas said, reached by phone in one of the tractors dragging wooden floats round and round Friday. "It wants to make like a washboard with this much rain."

The weather forced the featured Blushing K.D. Stakes from turf to dirt, but that mattered not a whit to Stormy West, who had a class edge on grass, but never had won a race on dirt. With Patrick Valenzuela winning his second race of the day, the Bill Mott-trained Stormy West held off a late run from Final Refrain to win by a length, paying $7.80.

In race 5, Valenzuela got his picture taken with clean silks after slipping through along the fence with Handsome Fee for his first-ever Fair Grounds victory. Valenzuela, denied a jockey's license back home in California, rode at Louisiana Downs over the summer. He was supposed to spend last winter here, but plans fell through at the last moment.

"Breaking the ice is a really good feeling," Valenzuela said on the way back to the jocks' room. "Things just didn't work out coming here last year. But we waited a year, and here we are. Let's get lucky!"

The 25-year-old jockey Edwin Maldonado-Alicea got really lucky. A horse crossed in front of him a furlong into the third race, and Maldonado-Alicea's mount, Bidder Dreams, clipped heels, sending the young rider flying into the air with most of the field still behind him.

"I felt like I was up there forever," Maldonado-Alicea said. "I could see then all coming at me."

Somehow, hooves missed human, who an hour later was dressed and wearing a backpack, off to try and make the night's third race across the state at Delta Downs.

And the Fair Grounds meet - a little wetter than many had hoped - was off and running, too.