11/05/2009 12:00AM

Optimism on meet's opening day

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NEW ORLEANS - Purse cuts, horse shortages, dire forecasts ringing racing's halls.

Down New Orleans way, the sun slanted serenely through stately live oaks on a series of picture-perfect fall days this week - a window into the strangely comfortable racing world of Louisiana.

Fair Grounds begins its 2009-2010 race meet Friday feeling full of vigor. No purse cuts, plenty of horses, and reason to believe the season holds promise.

Purse levels hit a record high last year and will start off even higher this season. Eric Halstrom, Fair Grounds' second-year vice president and general manager, said average daily purses, including stakes, should total about $345,000. Louisiana-bred maiden special weights run for a $45,000 purse, open maiden specials for $43,000.

The cash flows in great part from an ontrack slot machines parlor that has been operating for about one year, generating revenue to offset recent declines in video-poker handle at 10 Fair Grounds off-track-betting venues.

"The slots business has been very good," said Halstrom. "It's exceeded expectations."

Jason Boulet, racing secretary, said applications far outnumbered available stalls this year.

The track housed about 1,400 horses this week, but that number will swell as Kentucky-based outfits filter into town. About 2,000 more horses call central Louisiana and its myriad training centers home. Some race at the ongoing Delta Downs meet, but many come here.

The group of horsemen calling New Orleans home for the winter looks familiar. Steve Asmussen has put together powerful Fair Grounds meets the last few seasons. Al Stall worked 36 horses last weekend, and Frank Bernis is overseeing the early Tom Amoss arrivals. Cody Autrey, Bret Calhoun, and Mike Stidham always have live runners. Wayne Lukas has a string here this winter, as does Helen Pitts.

The top five riders from last meet, led by Robby Albarado and Jamie Theriot, are expected back. Shane Sellers rides here for the first time in years.

Churchill Downs Inc., Fair Grounds' parent company, sank money into both racecourses during the off-season. The main track, once regarded as exemplary, had lost essential material over time and was widely criticized last meet. Fair Grounds purchased 3,000 yards of Pearl River sand and spread it over the track in June, and for the most part, horsemen seem pleased with the upgrade, which has produced somewhat slow workout times.

"It's a little dull, as far as training, but knock on wood, so far it's good," said Bernis, Amoss's assistant, who has been coming to Fair Grounds for 23 years.

"It was a little loose and cuppy, but they've started watering more, and that's helped," said Stidham.

The grass course, which looked tired from the start last year, was verti-cut to stimulate root growth and aerated. It looks far better than this time last year.

Fair Grounds also has rolled out a revamped stakes schedule, highlighted by a new Louisiana Derby date of March 27, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, rather than the usual seven. The connections of any horse finishing in the top three in either the $750,000 Louisiana Derby or the Feb. 20 Risen Star will have the $25,000 Kentucky Derby entry fee waived. The Louisiana Derby purse has been increased from $600,000 and the Risen Star is worth $300,000 again after dropping to $200,000 last year.

"As far as 3-year-olds go, we're more competitive for getting top horses," said Boulet. "We went out of the way to say that Fair Grounds is the best road to the Kentucky Derby."

Opening-day stakes racing is more modest, but the Blushing K.D., a

1 1/16-mile grass race, came up tough for a $60,000 race. It's headed by Much Obliged, a Pin Oak Stable filly good enough to have finished a head behind champion Forever Together in the Canadian Stakes on Sept. 20 at Woodbine.

"It makes me cringe to run for $60,000, but it's the right race for her," said trainer Malcolm Pierce, who scratched Much Obliged from a richer stakes last weekend because of wet conditions.

Much Obliged doesn't just have class, she has an affinity for the Fair Grounds turf, having won two races over the course in 2008.

Love to Tell won the $125,000 Bayou Handicap last March, and though she hasn't raced since July, trainer Mike Burgess said Love to Tell should be competitive.

"She's really one of those horses that gets herself ready," said Burgess.

And Fair Grounds people, too, think the track itself is ready.

"We did a lot of work over the summer - hard work," said Halstrom. "Whatever happens, we can't say we didn't try hard enough."