11/21/2006 1:00AM

Reborn but not yet back to normal

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But three blocks down Belfort Street, just behind barn 40 on the Fair Grounds backstretch, sit the other symbols of New Orleans - abandoned houses consumed by semi-tropical foliage. For everything here that is still quintessentially New Orleans, there are reminders that the city still isn't herself, and when Fair Grounds begins its 135th season of racing on Thursday - the first since Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005 - it will do so in a landscape scarred by the storm and its floodwaters.

"I was eager to come back, but it doesn't feel like home anymore," said Rick Mocklin, a longtime jockey's agent whose home just east of New Orleans in Chalmette was swamped with 18 feet of water when the storm surge breached the levees. Mocklin isn't going back to the Chalmette house, but he's back at Fair Grounds for business, and so are about 1,800 horses and the human element that supports them. But whether their return can truly boost the fortunes and spirits of this damaged city is an open question.

Some people are calling the track's reopening the biggest socio-economic event in the city outside the return of the pro football Saints. Churchill Downs Inc., the track's parent company, contends the total economic impact of Fair Grounds is more than $350 million annually, including more than $174 million in direct spending. CDI's economic impact study also says the track "supports or creates 4,674 jobs" and provides more than $111 million in income for New Orleans-area residents. Those are high-end figures, but people have noticed that the track is back from a one-year hiatus at Louisiana Downs, far across the state in Shreveport. Reserved seats for opening day sold out in record time, and good crowds are expected throughout opening week. The New Orleans Times-Picayune will devote an entire section to the track's reopening in its Thanksgiving Day editions.

But beyond the racing community and its established fans, the Fair Grounds's rebirth creates more ripples than waves.

"The racetrack? That doesn't mean that much," said Christopher Kim, a tropical plant consultant and longtime resident of the Fauborg Marigny district, adjacent to the French Quarter. "It's not going to bring a lot of people from out of town back, and that's what we need - we need tourists."

Fair Grounds looks much the same, actually better in some respects, than it did before Katrina. CDI had operated the track for only a year - having acquired Fair Grounds from the Krantz family through a bankruptcy court auction - when the hurricane struck. Katrina's winds ripped a large chunk of roof from the grandstand, exposing the clubhouse to the elements for months. The racing surface was almost entirely submerged by floodwaters, the backstretch area inundated, barn roofs badly damaged. But CDI quickly pledged to rebuild.

"Two or three days after the storm, [CEO Tom] Meeker picked up the phone and called Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and said racing would return," said Fair Grounds president Randy Soth.

Piece by piece, contractors and laborers put the track back together. Roof replaced, electricity restored, clubhouse refurbished, backstretch area made whole again, and the racing surface, tested and retested for toxicity, brought back to life. Soth said he got 3,600 applications for the track's 1,800 stalls - more than ever - and Fair Grounds enters the meet flush with cash for purses. While the rebuilding took place and last year's season went forward at Louisiana Downs, offtrack betting parlors came back on line and started churning out profits. Meanwhile, Fair Grounds had leftover purse money from 2004-2005 that benefited last year's meet and will carry over to this season. Purses are expected to average more than $350,000 daily, the highest ever in New Orleans.

"I think this is a great opportunity," Soth said. "I've been throwing it out there for four months that this would be the best race meet New Orleans will ever have had."

Still, there are concerns. A housing shortage, Soth said, has turned out to be a non-issue, but Fair Grounds has been holding job fairs trying to attract enough employees to staff the meet. As of last week, they were not quite there yet. Trainers may also face a labor crunch. Fair Grounds never has been a hotbed for local hotwalkers, grooms, and exercise riders, and the backstretch employee pool has grown scarcer, hardly a surprise, since the population of New Orleans has dropped by some 200,000 since the storm.

"We've always come down early, and people were lined up looking for work," said Eddie Madary, a New Orleans native who once served as Fair Grounds publicity director and now helps care for trainer Alice Cohn's horses. "This year, there's no one."

Trainer Andy Leggio, who grew up in New Orleans, worries as much about a population base to support the racetrack itself.

"I've got serious questions because there are no people here," Leggio said. "Sure, the regulars are going to come out, but where are the young people? Who are the new fans going to be?"

Leggio, who lives in suburban Metairie, gave voice to fears of crime that have bounced around backstretches throughout the Midwest. "When I'm done here, I get in my car, lock my windows up, get on Interstate 610 and head for home," Leggio said.

Other people say reports of lawlessness are overblown. Trainer Al Sider, another New Orleans native, was forced from his home in New Orleans East because of flooding, but Sider has taken up residence on Canal Street not far from the track. "It's going to be different for a long time, but it feels good to be home," Sider said.

Ramley Bordelon, a racetrack veterinarian who spent much of his childhood in New Orleans, is back in his home in the Lake Vista neighborhood. "The publicity you heard in Chicago was negative," said Bordelon. "I'm thinking, 'I'm going to have to buy me a gun and stay at home.' But I got down here, and it wasn't that bad."

Not bad at all, in the view of trainer Al Stall, who comes from a New Orleans family and lives in the Uptown neighborhood. "In the areas that I travel, I see a lot of individual businesses and individual people getting themselves organized, that's what I see," said Stall.

And Fair Grounds, a place Stall has known since he was a kid, looks promising, too. "Unless I'm just missing something, what's not to like?" he said. "You've got a spruced up barn area, a beautiful track surface, an improved grandstand."

But even Stall won't pretend that New Orleans, or the Fair Grounds, can just pick up where it left off. The French Quarter and Mississippi riverfront remain strangely quiet most nights. Go a couple side streets off main thoroughfares, and many neighborhoods feel ghostly. More than half the public schools in the city haven't been cleaned up since the storm, and longtime residents are still scattered throughout the country.

"I'm not saying it's all over now that the storm's passed, that everything's beautiful," Stall said. "But we're here."