11/23/2004 1:00AM

Sporting a new look

Lone Star Park
Fair Grounds will be the site of 53 stakes races in its 82-day meet. On opening day Thursday, Beau's Town (above) tops a field of seven in the Thanksgiving Handicap.

NEW ORLEANS - The finish line and starting gate at Fair Grounds will sport a new logo when America's third oldest racetrack opens for its 133rd season Thursday. The green and white twin spires brand identifies Fair Grounds as part of the Churchill Downs empire along with Hollywood, Hoosier, Arlington, Ellis, and Calder.

CDI saved Fair Grounds from a bankruptcy auction sale of assets by purchasing the track from the Krantz family for $47 million in October, $25 million of which was paid to the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association to cover a lawsuit settlement. As important as the sale was for Fair Grounds, though, it may have been even more valuable to CDI, which has long sought an attractive winter racing program for its simulcast network. The lack of a top-flight winter track on its racing schedule meant CDI suffered a built-in loss in the first quarter of every year, but now Churchill has a winter signal to rival the traditional powerhouses of Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita.

"It's kind of been like an on again, off again love affair," said Fair Grounds president and general manager Randall Soth. "We really needed it to add to the Churchill Downs Simulcast Network to solidify our first quarter earnings report."

Fair Grounds has 53 scheduled stakes races worth nearly $5.9 million in combined purse money over the 82-day meet, which runs until March 27. The biggest stakes races have been combined to create four major days of racing throughout the meet, beginning with the $1 million Louisiana Champions Day Dec. 11, a Breeders' Cup-like day for Louisiana-breds.

The other three big days are designed to showcase 3-year-olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks. The Road to the Derby Kickoff on Jan. 15 includes the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes for 3-year-olds, the Tiffany Lass for 3-year-old fillies, the Dr. A.B. Leggio Memorial, and the Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap. Louisiana Derby Preview Day on Feb. 12 features the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes for 3-year-olds, the Grade 2 Silverbulletday Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, and the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap for older horses.

All eyes will be on the Fair Grounds March 12, when the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep race, and the corresponding Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies top a card that also includes the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap and the Marie G. Krantz Memorial Handicap. The total of $1.5 million purses projected for the day would make it the richest stakes day in Louisiana racing history.

On March 19, Fair Grounds will run three stakes, highlighted by the Grade 2 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap on the turf.

The opening-day feature is the 79th running of the $60,000 Thanksgiving Handicap. A six-furlong sprint, the Thanksgiving Handicap drew a speed-packed field of seven topped by 122-pound highweight Beau's Town, a Grade 2 winner trained by Cole Norman. Beau's Town may be the speed of the speed, judging by the 42.99 half-mile he cut en route to winning the Ford Express at Lone Star in May.

Beau's Town is 2 for 2 at Fair Grounds, including a victory in the Pelleteri Handicap in 2003.

The Tom Amoss-trained speedster Artemus Sunrise drew the rail, which is likely to force his hand in what appears to be a blistering pace scenario that includes last year's Sugar Bowl Handicap winner Wildcat Shoes and Beau's Town.

"It's a tough race," said Amoss, shrugging. "Absolutely. It should be a hot pace."

Mountain General, who will carry the second-highest weight at 118, was the sprint star of the 2003-2004 meet. He set a track record in the 2003 Thanksgiving Handicap.

"He's not the horse he was two years ago," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who saddles the horse for his father, Keith Asmussen.

But when the first trainer to win 500 races in a single year enters a horse with this kind of back-class, he has to merit serious consideration.

Jan. 15Lecomte 3$100,000
Feb. 12Risen Star3150,000
 Mineshaft H.3100,000
Feb. 19Bayou BC H.3125,000
March 12Louisiana Derby2600,000
 Fair Grounds Oaks2300,000
 New Orleans H.2500,000
March 19Muniz Memorial H.2500,000