01/30/2002 12:00AM

Purses cut because of soft economy

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NEW ORLEANS - For the last 10 years, purse increases have been as much a part of the Fair Grounds meet as seafood gumbo or red beans and rice. In fact, director of racing Mervin Muniz estimates he has announced purse increases 35 or 40 times during the last decade.

So when it was announced Monday that purses would be going down, not up, a long-welcome trend met a rude reversal.

Fair Grounds president Bryan Krantz said Wednesday that the decrease was necessitated primarily by a soft national and local economy. Purses have been lowered by $1,000 or $2,000 per race, with stakes races being exempt, amounting to a decrease of about 3 percent in the overall purse structure.

Krantz said that "anyone can look in the paper or watch the news" and know that these are not the best economic times. He noted that business at Gulfstream Park also is down, and business at other tracks is stagnant at best.

Krantz added that New Orleans, in particular, has been hurt by recent job losses and a downturn in tourism. Other negative factors include lower revenues from off-season simulcasting and the fact nearby Delta Downs opened earlier than normal, which has adversely affected field size in many of the cheaper races at Fair Grounds.

Krantz estimated all-sources handle is down nearly 10 percent from last year, when handle averaged almost $4.9 million per day. He said neither he nor horsemen nor anyone else likes a purse decrease, but "we just weren't making up the ground we thought we would when we made our projections. Obviously we're hoping this will be the only time we have to do this. We think what we've factored into this, we won't be overpaying by the end of the meet."

Horsemen mostly are resigned to the cut. "I guess they've got to do it, because that's just the way it is right now," trainer Dallas Stewart said.

Krantz said he hopes the decrease is an aberration. "When we took over in 1992, purses were $95,000 a day here," he said. "Last year they were $274,000. Overall, I think that tells the bigger story."

Big names to skip Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup

Maybe the most notable thing about the richest race here this weekend, the $150,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup on Saturday, is not who's coming, but who's not coming.

While Tijiyr, winner of the Grade 2 Explosive Bid here last March, is the probable favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Fair Grounds BC, three other notable horses are passing the race in favor of the $75,000 Mardi Gras Handicap on Feb. 12. Northcote Road, Where's Taylor, and Bonapaw are all probable for the Mardi Gras.

Stakes coordinator Brent Seward said more than the turf-course limit of 14 may pass the entry box for the Fair Grounds BC. If that occurs, then Vergennes could be excluded because Gary Tanaka owns Tijiyr and Vergennes, and conditions do not permit same-owner entries in case the race overfills.

No Super Bowl for Louisiana-reared Stall

With Super Bowl XXXVI located at the nearby Superdome on Sunday, plenty of backstretch talk has been about the game between the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots.

Trainer Al Stall Jr., a New Orleans native, was talking about the game Wednesday morning when he pulled a surprise: He said he won't be in attendance.

"I've been to every Super Bowl in New Orleans," said Stall. "I grew up right near Tulane Stadium," where the first of the eight New Orleans Super Bowls was played in 1970.

"It's just gotten to be too much trouble," he said.

Martinez considering a return to Keeneland

Willie Martinez is hoping he can go home again. Martinez quietly left his longtime stomping grounds of Kentucky early last year after a long slump, going to Delaware, then Calder, and now Fair Grounds.

Here, Martinez has won two stakes aboard Valhol and Gold for My Gal, but more importantly, he feels as if he is doing everything possible to make a successful return to Keeneland in the spring.

"Nothing's getting me down right now," said Martinez, 31. "I've learned that a lot of times you don't change, but people around you change off and on. There's nothing you can do about that.

"I'm very happy riding for the people I'm riding for. I'm showing the interest I need to show. I know that I'm riding good, and that's what has me really happy right now."

Martin mulling Delaware or Kentucky

Eddie Martin Jr., the leading jockey here at the halfway mark, said he will return to Keeneland again this spring, then "might give Delaware a try" when that meet begins in late April.

"They're giving away $380,000 a day there, and I believe I have some top trainers to ride for," said Martin. "If things don't work out there, then we'll look at somewhere else."

* Because of the Super Bowl, the Sunday card will have one fewer race and will start one hour earlier than usual, at 11:30 a.m. Central. The nine-race program is scheduled to end at about 3:40 p.m., which should give fans plenty of time to make the Super Bowl kickoff of 5:18. Winners of the five-furlong training races here Wednesday were Vitamin Bag, a 3-year-old filly trained by Gene Cilio (1:01.40); Seattle Glory, a 3-year-old colt trained by Todd Pletcher (1:02.60); and Whiletheiron'shot, a 3-year-old filly trained by Mark Frostad (1:01.80).