11/17/2005 12:00AM

Show moved upstate, but it will go on


BOSSIER CITY, La. - Across from the grandstand there's a forest, not the old Gentilly neighborhood. The French Quarter? Try Barksdale Air Force Base.

No, this is not the typical Fair Grounds racing season.

The 37-day meet that starts Saturday is dubbed Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs, an arrangement set up by Mother Nature herself. Hurricane Katrina precipitated the move to northwest Louisiana, where Fair Grounds is leasing Louisiana Downs and conducting the business of running the meet. Louisiana Downs still controls the racing facilities, helping out as needed.

"A pretty amazing degree of cooperation went into making this happen," said Fair Grounds president Randy Soth.

"It's going to be different for people here racing this time of year, but I think it's going to be a good thing," said Ray Tromba, vice president of racing operations at Louisiana Downs.

Different for Fair Grounds regulars, too. First, weather: It froze here Thursday night, and Bossier City does get snow. Grass races, a major component of Fair Grounds meets, will be limited to six a week, while racing weeks are four days, Thursday to Sunday. The stakes schedule has been trimmed to 34 races, with the biggest days in January. The Louisiana Derby and the Fair Grounds Oaks are canceled.

But races filled quickly opening weekend, and the product could prove highly bettable. The Louisiana Downs meet ended Oct. 9, and many local trainers are sitting on go.

"They're hungry and they're bored," said Ben Huffman, director of racing. Huffman estimates he'll have 3,000 horse-identification papers in his office within a couple of weeks, compared to about 1,700 in New Orleans last year. Churchill Downs Inc., Fair Grounds's parent company, is paying for a thrice-weekly shuttle from Oaklawn Park, which should supply many starters.

Cole Norman, winner of eight consecutive Louisiana Downs training titles, will leave a bigger footprint than during most Fair Grounds seasons. Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss figure to win like they do in New Orleans.

Jockey Robby Albarado arrives after the end of the Churchill meet. Roman Chapa and Gerard Melancon also should do well here.

It's trainer Tony Richey and jockey E.J. Perrodin who have the horse for the opening-day Gentilly Stakes, a $50,000 turf race at one mile for Louisiana-bred 2-year-olds. Desert Wheat exits good showings in three open turf stakes and should appreciate a major-league class drop.