11/21/2006 12:00AM

Track calls upon an old pro


NEW ORLEANS - Fair Grounds traditionally boasts two major attractions - the city of New Orleans and a racing surface upon which horsemen have heaped praise. The hope this year is New Orleans will return to its old self, and that the Fair Grounds racing surface will do the same.

Not that anyone was accusing Fair Grounds of having a bad track, but the thought went that the surface in recent seasons had lost its edge. That is why Roy Fabre is living in the first-floor apartment of a house that backs up onto the parking lot where Fair Grounds stores much of its maintenance equipment. Fabre can walk out his door, get in his electric golf cart, and in a matter of seconds arrive at the focus of his current life - the Fair Grounds racing surface.

Fabre, 78, started working here in 1946, and it was he who built up the track surface's reputation. But after 46 years, Fabre left Fair Grounds in 1992 not long after the Krantz family purchased the track. "I just couldn't get along," Fabre said. Four months ago, he got a call from current management.

Raised in a neighborhood not far from Fair Grounds, Fabre galloped horses for his father before turning his focus to the stuff beneath those horses' hooves. Self-taught, Fabre accumulated enough knowledge that his services were in demand throughout the country. He has worked for several tracks and was a consultant for Oaklawn Park before returning to New Orleans, tasked with bringing back the old Fair Grounds racetrack after the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina.

"We were underwater, but they had everything analyzed, and I saw it wasn't anything I couldn't handle," Fabre said.

The old veins of clay and sand at the nearby Bonnie Carey spillway that Fabre tapped during his first Fair Grounds tenure no longer are accessible, but Fabre found comparable material. He brought 11 loads of it in, then took some off to balance the mixture.

"I spread it, I tilled it, and I worked it for three to four weeks to get it perfect," Fabre said. "I can pick up the racetrack here in my hand, squeeze it between my fingers, and tell if it's right."

Mostly, Fabre watches, analyzes, and instructs, but he still insists on grading the racetrack himself, driving while dragging a 16-foot blade around the oval.

"I'm going to get blamed for anything that goes wrong," he said, "so let me go out and do it."

Happy Ticket's future still unclear

Happy Ticket, one of the best Louisiana-bred racehorses ever, is back at trainer Andy Leggio's Fair Grounds barn, but whether she is heading back into training for another season of racing or going off to the breeding shed has yet to be determined.

Largely overlooked in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, Happy Ticket broke from post 13 and raced against a rail bias the entire trip, but still finished third of 14 and was placed second after a disqualification. Overall, she has won 12 of 20 starts and almost $1.7 million while taking her connections from the New York to California and to two Breeders' Cups. Leggio said Happy Ticket had exited the Breeders' Cup in good enough physical condition; it's just up to Madison to decide what's next for her.

"Well, I purposely brought her to the Fair Grounds to let her get herself back together," Madison said. "We'll sit down in the next week and talk it over and see what we need to do. I'm on the fence right now. I think, talking to Andy and to the people that have been around her for a long time, at the level she races, she's got to be pretty good all the time. But as a person and an owner, I'm just on the fence. It's been maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thrill."

Sorcerer's Stone back from injury

One of the most interesting horses on the opening-day card at Fair Grounds is Sorcerer's Stone, the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the six-furlong Bayou Black. Sorcerer's Stone last raced in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing sixth behind Stevie Wonderboy. After Sorcerer's Stone underwent surgery to remove a bone chip in his ankle following that race, he was sent to the barn of trainer Brandon Marks, who has been conditioning him over the surfaces at Evangeline and Delta Downs.

"We think he came down with the bone chip during the Juvenile," said Marks. "We put him out for a few months with the idea of pointing him toward this meet, and he's coming along well."

Marks said he thought of entering Sorcerer's Stone in the Thanksgiving Day Handicap, but decided to try this easier spot instead.

"We thought about it, but that's a tough field, and when we saw this race at the same distance on the card we decided to run in there instead," said Marks. "It should be a good tightener for him. We are hoping to stretch him out to run in some of the stakes races here next year."

Sorcerer's Stone began his career with three impressive victories before losing the Juvenile, and Marks thinks he should be able to handle this field even if he's not ready to turn in his best effort.

"Any horse coming off a layoff of more than a year is not going to be 100 percent at the top of his game," said Marks. "But we think he's good enough to win in this spot."

No plans yet for Sutra

Sutra, who won the Grade 1 Frizette but finished ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, has come to Fair Grounds with trainer Mike Stidham, but only is in light training and has no well-defined schedule.

"She's here, but she's under the radar right now," said Stidham. "We don't have any plans yet."

- additional reporting by John Swenson