11/20/2006 12:00AM

Reopening day almost here


NEW ORLEANS - Boxes of flat-screen televisions and crates of new dinner plates were stacked just inside the entrance to the Fair Grounds grandstand. A surprisingly chill north wind blew up the tunnel leading from the paddock to the racetrack while workmen spread out liquid polymer that eventually would congeal into a cushiony paddock surface. Some major reconstruction was going on next to the entrance to the jockeys' quarters.

Seventy-two hours. After a gap of 18 months - during which a hurricane swamped much of this racetrack and the surrounding city, during which the 2005-06 season had to be run on the other side of the state at Louisiana Downs - there were just 72 hours until Fair Grounds was back in business. It's difficult enough getting a racetrack ready for a typical opening day. Nothing around these parts is typical right now.

"There's just so many little things going on simultaneously," said Fair Grounds publicity director Lenny Van Gilder on Monday morning.

No matter what has to get done before Thursday, the heavy lifting is all behind Fair Grounds now, but there still are these thousand little rough edges to smooth before people start showing up for the traditional Thanksgiving Day opener - and plenty are expected.

Fair Grounds sold out its reserved opening-day seats in record time this year, and the track's phone lines have consistently been snarled by ticket- or information-seekers.

For some people - horsemen and racing office employees, for instance - the season already has begun. Horses have been in training here for several weeks, and many outfits are geared for the opener. And under Fair Grounds's early entry schedule, entries for Thursday's card were taken way back on Saturday. Opening day filled well, but by Sunday, when Friday's card was drawn, racing office employees and jockey agents were working the phones, trying to lure a few final horses to fill out the program. Friday's card wound up with 84 entries in 10 races, down 15 from the opening-day total, and Saturday's card, drawn on Monday, was even slower to fill.

"I'm not stressed," new racing secretary Sam Abbey said late Sunday morning, coming up for air between phone calls and checks of computerized entry tallies. "This is my job."

Abbey, spending his first season in New Orleans, said he regularly deals with difficult entry days at his summer job with Delaware Park. And there may be more to come in the near future at Fair Grounds. While many horsemen are eager to run here, and Fair Grounds is putting up excellent purse money, this meet doesn't really roll until the Kentucky people finish up at Churchill Downs, and there are barns on the Fair Grounds backstretch still sitting empty, waiting for those arrivals.