11/21/2006 1:00AM

Racing resumes after the flood

Churchill Downs Inc.
When the gates open at Fair Grounds on Thursday, the comeback from the damage of Katrina will be complete.

"You can feel the excitement going around the building," said media director Lenny Vangilder. "So far the response we've gotten from the community gives us reason to hope for an outstanding season."

Fair Grounds suffered major damage to its grandstand, barn area, and racing surfaces during Katrina and from the ensuing flood after this city's levee system failed following the storm. The main track and turf course have since been renovated and construction is all but complete on the frontside and backstretch buildings. In addition to the installation of 600 new flat-screen TV's in the grandstand, the reburbished infield tote board is augmented by a new 15-by-20-foot video screen.

In what figures to be an emotional moment on opening day, Fair Grounds announcer John Dooley will request all those in attendance to observe a moment of silence for the victims of Hurricane Katrina prior to the first race. The moment of silence will be followed by the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner and then the first race post parade.

The stables of Scott Blasi, Tom Amoss, Neil Howard, Dallas Smith, Al Stall, Michael Stidham, Ronny Werner, and Patrick Mouton are all on hand as well as familiar Fair Grounds jockeys Robby Albarado, Donnie, Lonnie, and Cody Meche, James Graham, Corey Lanerie, and Tracy Hebert.

There will be no shortage of quality horses competing for a record daily purse distribution of $350,000 due to better-than-anticipated revenues from video poker and the refurbished OTB network operated by Fair Grounds's owner, Churchill Downs Inc. The meet will feature 65 stakes races with combined purses of more than $7.7 million, the highest total in the track's history.

The highlight of the schedule will be Louisiana Derby Day on March 10, 2007. Five stakes worth $2.1 million, including all four of the meet's Grade 2 events, will make it the richest day of racing in Louisiana history. The highlight of that card is the 94th running of the Louisiana Derby. The four Grade 2 races - which also include the Fair Grounds Oaks, New Orleans Handicap, and Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap - are part of a record 10 graded stakes on the 2006-07 calendar.

Last year only one of the Grade 2 stakes was run at the abbreviated Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs meet in Bossier City. The Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds Oaks, and Mervin Muniz all skipped a year.

The opening-day feature is the $75,000 Thanksgiving Day Handicap at six furlongs, which is headlined by Gaff and Zarb's Dahar, the 118-pound co-highweights in the 10-horse field.

Gaff, a 4-year-old son of Maria's Mon, started the year with a bang by winning Gulfstream's Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Handicap on Jan. 7, but has not won again after being shipped to the United Arab Emirates and finishing fifth in the Dubai Golden Shaheen in his next start, on March 25. He placed third, beaten less than a length, in Pimlico's Grade 3 Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap on Preakness Day, then finished last in Calder's Grade 2 Smile Sprint Handicap on July 15. After a fourth-place effort in Mountaineer's Harvey Arneault Memorial on Aug. 6, Gaff was given a freshening, but has worked well since arriving at Fair Grounds, where he breezed five furlongs in 1:00.20 on Nov. 13.

"It seemed like the race at Calder knocked him out a little bit," said Blasi, who trains him. "When he didn't bounce back at Mountaineer, we decided to give him a break."

Blasi will take the blinkers off Gaff for the Thanksgiving Handicap and has named Donnie Meche to ride.

"I don't think the blinkers made any difference in the way he ran," Blasi said. "I'm looking for him to run back to the race he ran in the Mr. Prospector and the form he showed last winter."

Zarb's Dahar won this race last year when it was held at Louisiana Downs as part of the abbreviated Fair Grounds meet. A 6-year-old Louisiana-bred gelding, Zarb's Dahar has won 7 of his last 9 races and finished second in the other two. Trainer James Hodges sticks with regular rider Gerard Melancon.

The Thanksgiving Handicap often produces a wicked pace, and this year's field seems likely to cut fast fractions. Four Sevens, a 3-year-old colt trained by Werner, possesses high speed, as does the Mouton-trained Cort's P.B. Rodeo's Castle could also be a pace factor. Gaff's equipment change suggests that he might try to sit off the pace, but the colt has been aggressive early in many of his races.

Joe Six Pack is a solid closer trained by Stidham and ridden by Carlos Gonzalez, but the most interesting off-the-pace candidate is Smalltown Slew, who has been sensational while climbing the claiming ladder for Amoss, who nabbed the 5-year-old gelding for the bargain basement price of $30,000 in February and has since saddled him to 4 wins, 3 seconds, and a third.

"The thing Smalltown Slew has going for him is that he's a real tryer," said Amoss. "The amount of speed in the race gives him a chance because he's a good closer."

o The forecast for opening day is for sunny skies and a high of 66 degrees.