02/16/2005 1:00AM

Track has its biggest day under CDI

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NEW ORLEANS - After starting out with only marginal gains in attendance and handle, Fair Grounds gave Churchill Downs Incorporated its first home run of its first season operating the track on Saturday.

The crowd of 4,695 on Louisiana Derby Preview Day was not as large as the attendance some of the bigger tracks pull on major race days, but it was a dramatic improvement on the 3,032 that came for last year's Risen Star. Fans packed the smallish Fair Grounds grandstand, and the parking lot was completely filled.

Most importantly, the total combined handle was $8.45 million, the most for a 10-race card in track history. The only bigger handle in Fair Grounds history was on Louisiana Derby Day in 2000, when $9.08 million was wagered on an 11-race card.

Given that CDI took control of the track less than a month after purchasing it, there was no real opportunity to introduce wholesale changes in operational strategy. Yet there is a feeling here that Fair Grounds has turned a corner under the new management and may return to the happy days of the 1990's. Winter tracks are the staging grounds for the new 3-year-olds being pointed to the spring classics, and local racing fans are happy to have a direct tie to Louisville and the Kentucky Derby. CDI is also doing the little things right. Formerly inhospitable backstretch bathrooms have been upgraded, long-broken window locks fixed, and chronic leaks repaired.

Such subtle improvements may not represent dramatic change, but they do help to establish an optimistic mindset that spreads from the track workers to the patrons. There is still plenty of room for improvement, of course. The purse structure has yet to benefit from the planned addition of slot machines, and racing secretary Ben Huffman has had a challenge filling races.

The remainder of the Fair Grounds meet is a fast-moving progression to the March 12 Louisiana Derby and beyond. Therein lies the one impact of CDI's acquisition of Fair Grounds, that the track could become a main road to the Kentucky Derby.

Taylor's Special wraps up series

The $100,000 Taylor's Special on Louisiana Preview Day established Wrzeszcz as the meet's turf sprint champion by virtue of his nose victory over Mighty Beau. A 4-year-old son of Langfuhr, Wrzeszcz is likely to go on to even bigger things for trainer Tom Amoss. Fair Grounds usually produces several top-quality turf horses, and Wrzeszcz showed versatility in his two victories at the meet, leading every step of the way to win a prep race for the Taylor's Special, then taking back behind the early leader and besting him in a stretch-long duel in the Taylor's Special.

Gold Storm to stay on dirt

Gold Storm scratched out of the Taylor's Special because trainer Bubba Cascio wants to keep him on the dirt. Gold Storm breezed five furlongs in 1:00.80 after scratching out.

"I tried him twice on the grass and he didn't run as well," said Cascio, adding that there is another spot for Gold Storm at the end of the meet, the six-furlong Duncan F. Kenner on March 19.

Nicki's Wish seeks redemption

Nicki's Wish lost a heartbreaker Jan. 29, when Keep This Cat came again along the inside at 24-1 to beat her by a nose on a day when the rail was golden. This time around, Nicki's Wish should get her way in the feature race Friday at Fair Grounds, a $40,000 optional claimer for fillies and mares at six furlongs on the main track.

The toughest of Nicki's Wish's six rivals figures to be Read Me My Rights, a 6-year-old mare owned by Michael Gill and trained by Gamaliel Vazquez who is entered for the $40,000. Stonington and Call Carson are also in for the tag.

Shadow Cast returns in Bayou BC

Shadow Cast, winner of consecutive stakes races at Fair Grounds, returns Saturday to run in the $150,000 Grade 3 Bayou Breeders' Cup, a 1 1/8-mile handicap for fillies and mares over the turf. Also expected to go are Bijou, Grade 3 winner Sister Swank, and multiple stakes winners May Gator and My Misty Princess. Sister Swank breezed a half-mile in 50.80 Monday in her final tune-up for the race.