08/30/2006 12:00AM

Recovery a long time coming


DEL MAR, Calif. - Jimmy Bell, the son of legendary Kentucky breeder John A. Bell, was sitting in his car outside the home of Bill and Barbara Thomason in the Chevy Chase section of Lexington, Ky., wondering what more he could have said to friends who had just lost their daughter in the fiery wreckage of Comair Flight 5191.

It was Wednesday morning, three days after 25-year-old Marcie Thomason and 48 others had been killed in a crash now being blamed on human error. Bell, the president of Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum's Darley USA, operates out of Darley at Jonabell, a stallion farm located not far from the 7,000-foot, north-south runway at Lexington's Bluegrass Field that the Comair commuter jet was supposed to have used, rather than a shorter east-west runway.

"Having children the same age, who've grown up together, you don't even pretend to understand the feelings and emotions," Bell said.

"I was in Saratoga Sunday morning," Bell noted, which is no surprise, since Bernardini had won the Travers Stakes for Sheikh Mohammed just the day before. "I called the office as soon as I heard. They said it sounded like thunder.

"Even great moments of jubilation and excitement are tempered very quickly by such events in other people's lives," Bell added. "It keeps everything in perspective, of how life can really be."

Darley at Jonabell, formerly the Jonabell Farm of the Bell family, is located right across Bowman Mill Road from Mill Ridge Farm, where Bill Thomason serves as financial manager

"Bill's been here for 26 years," said Alice Chandler, owner of Mill Ridge. "He's like my son. And Marcie was just a real neat girl, his eldest of three daughters."

This is a close-knit corner of Lexington's Thoroughbred world, just down the road from Keeneland Racecourse, now gripped hard by unthinkable tragedy. Comair 5191 provided a familiar sound each morning around dawn, as reliable as the crow of the cock, flying locals off to Delta's Atlanta hub for points farther down the road.

"Mary Miller, who works in our office, took that same flight Saturday morning, on her way to California," Chandler said.

It will be a great while before things feel normal again, before the people who live and work in the Mill Ridge Farm neighborhood of Lexington don't flinch every time they hear the sound of a jet engine overhead.

The Comair disaster was all the news media could deal with for a couple of days before attention was returned to the more scripted heartbreak in the spotlight - the first anniversary of the flooding of New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Horse racing has its own small piece of the ongoing drama, since the Fair Grounds was inundated, structures suffered rampant damage, and the 2005-06 meeting was lost, with no promises of the sport ever returning.

But return it will, this coming Thanksgiving Day, when people like Fair Grounds media and simulcasting director Lenny Vangilder present a familiar face to the brave new world of New Orleans Thoroughbred racing.

According to Vangilder, it took 90,000 pounds of granulated gypsum spread over the main track, turf course, and infield to soak up all the fetid salt water that washed onto the property. There are a few promising signs in the neighborhood - like the reopening of such favored racetrack eateries as The Seahorse and Liuzza's - and the backstretch is scheduled to reopen on Nov. 1. Still, there is tension in the air when weather makes the news.

"Everybody was going crazy about Ernesto a few days ago," said Vangilder, whose condo in Kenner narrowly escaped serious damage. "Until we were told it was heading for Florida, there was a real sense of apprehension. And that thing was way out in the Caribbean. In the past, you didn't start thinking about it until maybe it got into the Gulf."

As for the rebirth of the Fair Grounds, local writer Ronnie Virgets noted, "It will be more symbolic than anything. But sometimes the symbols can be important."

Last April, in one of his columns published in Gambit Weekly, Virgets worried over the virtually anonymous hundreds of New Orleans flood victims whose names passed without significant note. The death toll, still a slippery figure, has exceeded 1,000.

"How important do you have to be," wrote Virgets, "before your fellow citizens even know you are gone?"

A year ago this week, Virgets had to swim from the rooftop of his two-story home on Marshal Foch to save himself. Two months later he was hospitalized for gall bladder surgery, but, as he would say, that's a whole 'nother tale. The main thing is, he was feeling good enough to make a trip West for part of this summer's Del Mar meet.

"People here like to get away if they can," said Virgets, an Eclipse Award winner for both writing and broadcasting. "Go somewhere for a little while where New Orleans isn't the tone of every conversation.

"I know there's legitimate songs to be sung," Virgets said of his city's recovery. "And I think there are positive signs. But people's expectations are high. Maybe higher than those positive signs can accommodate."