03/08/2007 12:00AM

Out to write family history

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Circular Quay rallied strongly in the Risen Star after checking badly.

NEW ORLEANS - Al Stall Jr. has been going to the races at Fair Grounds for so long that he can't remember the first time he went. His grandfather owned horses here, and his father was the longtime head of the state racing commission. Stall, now one of this track's leading trainers, grew up in the city's Uptown section and still lives there. He has seen a lot over the years. Especially over the last two years.

While Fair Grounds is back up and running, and on Saturday will present the richest day of racing in Louisiana history, there are still many parts of this charming city that have yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

"When you're here, it doesn't go away," Stall said.

Fair Grounds, which first raced in 1872, did not have a meet here last year, and was forced to scrap the $600,000 Louisiana Derby. But that major Kentucky Derby prep race returns on Saturday, and headlines a card that has five stakes, four of which, including the Louisiana Derby, are Grade 2. Stall's father and grandfather owned five horses who competed in the Louisiana Derby, none of whom won. Stall, 45, has had just one starter in the race, and he has never won it either. But he has a live longshot this time in the B. Wayne Hughes-owned colt Ketchikan, who comes off a powerful allowance win here and might prove a tempting price compared with the top two choices, Circular Quay and Liquidity.

"If he stumbles in and wins it, I don't know what I'd feel like," Stall said. "I'm from here, I've seen what happened with Katrina, and it's the first year back at Fair Grounds. Plus, Wayne and I have been together 10 years now. My parents will be here, a sister, her boys, my brother, cousins, my wife, and son. It would mean a lot."

The Louisiana Derby, at 1 1/16 miles, has drawn an intriguing field of eight, all of whom will carry 122 pounds. Circular Quay, the runner-up in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, figures to be favored following his rough trip as the favorite in the Risen Star Stakes four weeks ago. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, also is sending out the lightly raced Soaring By, the likely pacesetter. Liquidity is in from California, where he finished second to Ravel in the Sham Stakes last time out. Imawildandcrazyguy was second and Zanjero third in the Risen Star. Birdbirdistheword makes his first start since taking the Delta Jackpot in December.

The Louisiana Derby is the ninth race on an 11-race card that begins at 12:35 p.m. Central, with the gates open at 10:30 a.m. It is also the final leg of a pick four that has a $200,000 guarantee and includes the four graded stakes races, beginning with the New Orleans Handicap, which goes as the sixth.

Ketchikan, a big, powerful son of Mr. Greeley, is named for the famed Alaskan fishing village. He has raced just three times, all at this meet, and has won his last pair under veteran jockey Larry Melancon.

"He acts like a seasoned pro after three races," Stall said. "He finished as well in his last race going a mile as he did when he won going 5 1/2 furlongs."

Circular Quay finished fifth in the Risen Star, but was lucky to complete the race after having to check sharply behind Slew's Tizzy, who clipped heels and threw jockey James Graham. Circular Quay practically came to a stop, yet somehow rallied in the final furlong. Pletcher believes the Fair Grounds layout suits Circular Quay's late-running style.

"The main reason we chose there is the long stretch," Pletcher said. "He's an obvious closer. We didn't want to pick a speed-biased track."

Liquidity will be standing in for stablemate Notional, who won the Risen Star for trainer Doug O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam but is awaiting the Florida Derby at the end of the month. Liquidity has run two strong races since adding blinkers. In addition to the Sham, he also finished second in the Hollywood Futurity to Stormello.

"He's still kind of immature," O'Neill said. "We debated whether to take the blinkers off after his last, but when we worked him without blinkers, he looked around."

Soaring By should make the running. He is stretching out around two turns after racing twice in sprints. In his last start, he prompted a quick pace before settling for second.

Imawildandcrazyguy just caught Zanjero in the final strides to take second in the Risen Star. Both those colts rally from well back. Imawildandcrazyguy drew the outside post.

"He's an endurance specialist," said Bill Kaplan, who trains Imawildandcrazyguy. "He goes the same pace the whole way. If they get tired, they're going to have to get out of his way."