11/17/2005 12:00AM

Reconstruction to ramp up during winter


BOSSIER CITY, La. - Fair Grounds has moved to Louisiana Downs for the winter, but there is as much focus on the racing facility in New Orleans right now as on the race meet that starts Saturday in Bossier City, and work to bring the racetrack back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina will accelerate over the winter.

Churchill Downs Inc., which bought Fair Grounds out of bankruptcy in 2004, hopes to conduct the 2005-06 Fair Grounds season in New Orleans, and remains committed to Fair Grounds despite the imposing hurdles thrown up by Katrina, according to Fair Grounds president Randy Soth.

"The original reason for the acquisition of the Fair Grounds, as the missing part of the Churchill Downs puzzle, is still there," Soth said.

But the track still must be put back together again. Katrina tore off a portion of the roof, blew out some panes of glass, and generally made a mess of things. Structures on the backstretch took damage, while the safety rail from the main track was scattered all over the property. Half of the racing surface was submerged by Katrina's floodwaters.

There is electrical power in some places ontrack, but not in the grandstand, Soth said. Full restoration of power awaits the roof's repair, a project scheduled to begin Dec. 1 and expected to take two months. Meanwhile, the executive offices, which function without phone service, are crammed into the video-poker parlor on the north side of the grandstand. "People are jammed in cubicles," Soth said.

Fair Grounds had begun the first phase of a two-part, $4 million backstretch improvement project when Katrina hit. The upgrade eventually will happen, but CDI and Fair Grounds insurers still are sorting out how repairs will proceed.

"The big question through all this is what's storm damage and what's not," Soth said.

Core samples taken from the main track have been sent for analysis, but Soth believes "there are no major obstacles facing us" with either the dirt track or the turf course.

Garbage and debris still sit scattered in the surrounding neighborhoods, but residents have begun returning in greater numbers. The area has a pulse, but there are questions about the viability of conducting a meet in a shattered city.

"There are three major things that run through our minds," said Soth. "Will the facility be able to be insured again? Will we have a population to staff the meet? Will there be a population base to support the meet? You throw all that in one big gumbo pot. We're trying to get answers as quickly as we can."

Last month a New Orleans Times-Picayune story discussed a vision of Fair Grounds as an entirely altered business - a mega-tourist destination, complete with hotel, spreading into surrounding neighborhoods. But Soth said such ideas reside only "at the corporate level."

At ground level, the effort now is simply to get the plant running again. Even a proposed slots parlor has been pushed to the back burner. Fair Grounds is all but approved to operate slot machines, but construction of a facility must now await reconstruction of the rest of Fair Grounds.

At a glance: Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 37 days; Thursday through Sunday; dark Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays

POST TIME: 12:25 p.m. Central

ADMISSIONS: Free grandstand; reserved box seats $5

PARKING: Free valet and general

STREET ADDRESS: 8000 East Texas Street, Bossier City, LA 71111

INTERNET: fairgroundsracecourse.com

PHONE: (318) 742-5555

2005-06 stakes schedule

Sat.,Nov. 19Gentilly2YO*1 mile (T)$50,000
Sun.,Nov. 20Sarah Lane's Oates2YO F*1 mile (T)50,000
Thur.,Nov. 24Thanksgiving B.C. Handicap3YO & Up6 furlongs75,000
Sat.,Nov. 26Pago Hop3YO F1 1/16 miles (T)75,000
Sun.,Nov. 27Woodchopper3YO1 1/16 miles (T)75,000
Sat.,Dec. 3Dr. A.B. Leggio Memorial B.C.F&M, 3YO & Up7 furlongs75,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Quarter Horse JuvenileQH, 2YO*350 yards100,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Quarter Horse DerbyQH, 3YO*400 yards100,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Juvenile2YO C&G*6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Starter Handicap3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles50,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Lassie2YO F*6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Sprint3YO & Up*6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Turf3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles (T)100,000
Sat.,Dec. 10LadiesF&M, 3YO & Up* 1 1/16 miles100,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Classic3YO & Up*1 1/8 miles150,000
Sat.,Dec. 10Quarter Horse ClassicQH, 4YO & Up*440 yards100,000
Sat.,Dec. 17Furl Sail HandicapF&M, 3YO & Up1 mile (T)75,000
Sun.,Dec. 18Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap3YO & Up1 1/16 miles (T)75,000
Sat.,Dec. 24Truly Bound B.C. HandicapF&M, 3YO & Up1 1/16 miles75,000
Sat.,Dec. 31Louisiana Futurity2YO C&G*6 furlongs40,000
Sat.,Dec. 31Louisiana Futurity2YO F*6 furlongs40,000
Sun.,Jan. 1Sugar Bowl3YO6 furlongs75,000
Sat.,Jan. 7New Orleans Handicap (G2)4YO & Up1 1/8 miles400,000
Sat.,Jan. 7Red CameliaF&M, 4YO & Up* 1 mile (T)50,000
Sun.,Jan. 8Dixie Poker Ace4YO & Up*1 mile (T)50,000
Sat.,Jan. 14Risen Star (G3)3YO1 1/16 miles250,000
Sat.,Jan. 14Silverbulletday (G3)3YO F1 1/16 miles250,000
Sat.,Jan. 14Bayou B.C. Handicap (G3)F&M, 4YO & Up 1 1/16 miles (T)250,000
Sat.,Jan. 14Duncan F. Kenner B.C.4YO & Up6 furlongs250,000
Sun.,Jan. 15Bedanken3YO F1 mile (T)75,000

Sat.,Jan. 21Fair Grounds B.C. Handicap4YO & Up1 1/16 miles (T)200,000
Sat.,Jan. 21Crescent City Derby3YO*1 1/16 miles75,000
Sat.,Jan. 22Black Gold3YO1 mile (T)75,000
Sun.,Jan. 22Battler Star3YO F*6 furlongs50,000