11/20/2007 12:00AM

Track rebounding with New Orleans

Louis Hodges Jr.
Fair Grounds opens its 2007-08 meet Thursday with high expectations and a stable area overflowing with horses.
NEW ORLEANS - At places like 150-year-old City Park, post-Katrina New Orleans still feels a little like the end of the world. Most of the 1,300-acre park, which basically was underwater following the epic hurricane, remains deserted. Thick, twining vegetation chokes its three 18-hole golf courses. Wild boars were captured there.

But a couple miles south of the weedy wastes, huge crowds of horses are clambering to get into the New Orleans Fair Grounds - more than 3,400 applications were submitted for the track's 1,800 available stalls - and following a successful 2006-07 return to New Orleans after a year's exile at Louisiana Downs, the Fair Grounds meet starts Thursday with high expectations.

"Right now, I'm looking for someone to show up short, so I can help some of these people out" with stalls, racing secretary Sam Abbey said earlier this week.

It's not only horses that have come back, but humanity, too. Alice Cohn, a longtime trainer here, said the cross-town commute from her Uptown neighborhood is taking twice as long as last year. Stables struggling to find help last season are fully stocked with workers now. And a recently released census report based on U.S. Postal Service data showed the New Orleans metro area with about 86 percent of its pre-Katrina population as of September. Orleans Parish itself is at about 70 percent, 15opercent higher than the census at the start of last meet.

"We were down 10 percent in attendance, but that was with half the population," track president Randy Soth said of last season.

Because of strong handle figures, a steady stream of profits from video poker parlors, and extra purse money that accrued because some allowance races with higher purses failed to fill, Fair Grounds was awash in purse money by last March. For instance, $496,000 in purses was paid out on Thursday, March 22, a 10-race card with no stakes races. That day, $5,000 Louisiana-bred claimers ran for a purse of $32,000. Soth said purse hikes this year, if they occur, were likely to be more incremental.

Average daily purse distribution this meet begins at $350,000 - the same level at which last year's meet began - but purses could get a boost from 245 slot machines currently housed in Fair Grounds's old off-track-betting building; those machines could generate from $200,000 to $240,000 in monthly purses, Soth said. A permanent facility that can house as many as 700 machines is under construction, a project that will be at least a minor irritant this season. Some parking areas are inaccessible, and two of the three main entrances to the track are closed; patrons now can enter on both ends of the track apron.

Once inside, they'll find a refurbished paddock area, new box seats on the fourth floor, and - the track fervently hopes - an amped-up racing product.

"We've tried to upgrade a little bit this year," Abbey said.

Bill Mott has a Fair Grounds string for the first time since the mid-1980s. Larry Jones, who kicked off Hard Spun's 2007 season in the Lecomte Stakes here last January, also has stalls, and Bobby Frankel will increase his presence this year with 30 stalls. Rick Dutrow has brought in a string from New York.

"I've heard a lot of good things," said trainer Mark Casse, who has 25 horses here, his first meet at Fair Grounds. "It's funny, I can tell you, I'm a Floridian, but as far as owners go, when I said I was going to New Orleans for the first time, people were pretty excited about it."

Casse has a colt named Miner's Claim that he hopes is good enough to make the meet's biggest race, the Louisiana Derby, scheduled this season for March 8, a blockbuster day of racing that also includes the Fair Grounds Oaks, the New Orleans Handicap, and the Mervin Muniz Handicap.

Tom Amoss and Steve Asmussen figure to send out their annual waves of winners, and both have a horse for the featured $60,000 Thanksgiving Handicap, the traditional opening-day feature. Amoss saddles Thunder Mission, who was claimed for $50,000 last July, while Asmussen sends out Stormin Baghdad, a sharp Nov. 1 Churchill Downs allowance winner in his second start for the Asmussen stable.

"He was hard held early and ran a good race," Asmussen said. "I don't think he wants to run a step past three-quarters of a mile. It's a long stretch at the Fair Grounds."

The Thanksgiving's six furlongs might max out Stormin Baghdad, but the race may be slightly short for Thunder Mission, who finished third in a fast seven-furlong allowance race last out at Churchill.

"I think he's the kind of horse that needs the race to set up for him, and unfortunately, I don't think there's a lot of speed," Amoss said.

One Bret Calhoun-trained entrant, Orphan Brigade, could wind up making the lead Thursday, but another one, Going Wild, has a better chance to win. Making his first start in 11 months, Going Wild finished second last month at Keeneland to the good sprinter Santana Strings, and posted a bullet work here Nov. 13.

"I like him coming into this spot," Calhoun said. "I thought off a year layoff, he ran a tremendous race."

Miguel Mena, one of a handful of new riders at Fair Grounds, has the mount on Stormin Baghdad for Asmussen, but Shaun Bridgmohan figures to get much of the Asmussen business once he arrives after the Churchill meet closes Saturday. Gabriel Saez, who rides regularly for Larry Jones, has his first mounts here Saturday. And Eddie Martin is back at Fair Grounds for the first time since the 2004-05 meet.