11/20/2001 1:00AM

Trainers with national reps come calling


NEW ORLEANS - The notion that Fair Grounds is a desirable place to train a horse during the winter has attained common currency among horsemen throughout the country. Between the good vibe the track gives off and Hialeah Park's closure cutting into the number of available stalls in south Florida this year, Fair Grounds will launch what should be an especially strong meet Thursday, with an infusion of new stables bolstering a horse population that has been gaining quality for several years.

"The shift at the top end has been going on for awhile," said Tom Amoss, perennially a contender for leading trainer here. "But I think that with the name trainers, it will be more evident now to people from the outside."

The most recognizable trainers to have relocated here this winter are Todd Pletcher, Neil Howard, Carl Nafzger, Bill Badgett, Richard Dutrow, and Dick Lundy. There are others, too, less well-known nationally, but successful in their own right, such as Vickie Foley, Hugh Robertson, and Brent Sumja. Some have been here before, though not for a few seasons, while others are here for the first time. Their cumulative effect will contribute to a changed dynamic at Fair Grounds, as cheaper stock give way to horses of higher quality. Newly competitive purses for lower-level claimers at nearby Delta Downs might intensify the shift. Expect to see more allowance races during this Fair Grounds meet, and do not be surprised if contenders for the spring classics soon begin emerging.

Chief among the newcomers is Pletcher, who - along with Badgett - was hit hard by Hialeah's decision to close its doors to winter training. With 100 horses, many of whom trained at Hialeah last winter, Pletcher's operation required a major reshuffling.

"It's obviously something different for us, but we're optimistic it will work out well," Pletcher said. "One of the reasons we're at Fair Grounds is because we know the surface is good. We'll start running right away down there."

Pletcher will split his stable three ways this winter, with about 40 horses remaining in New York and another 30 each at Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds. While big-name trainers like Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas sent second-division strings here during the last few years, Pletcher has divided his better stock between his winter locations. "We have nice horses in each place," he said.

Pletcher's local assistant, George Weaver, said the stable, which includes 16 maidens, has about eight unraced young horses ready to start right now.

Said Pletcher, "It's way early as far as who has classic potential and who doesn't." But names are surfacing. A Seattle Slew colt named Seattle Glory has caught Pletcher's eye, and Pletcher already has won Fair Grounds schooling races with the 2-year-olds Bulldoze and Mystic Salse.

Badgett also was caught in the Hialeah crunch. By the time it became apparent that Hialeah would be closed to training, it was too late for Badgett to procure other stalls in Florida, either at Gulfstream, Payson Park, or Palm Beach Downs. Badgett, however, has been here before, having raced at Fair Grounds for two seasons in the early 1990's. Right now, he has 15 horses here. "I have everything from starter allowance to stakes horses," he said. "It should be a competitive bunch."

Neil Howard, whose most recognizable client is Will Farish, has long maintained at least a soft presence at Fair Grounds and raced full-time here a decade ago. Since then, Howard and his best horses have wintered in Florida, where Farish has a home, but this season, with Farish spending time in England, where he is the American ambassador, Howard pulled up his Florida roots and brought 20 horses to New Orleans.

"I have confidence in this racetrack," Howard said. "Some of the best years we've had were when we came out of New Orleans. We're not coming to knock anyone off the top, but we'll have a productive meet."

Howard is high on the late-developing 3-year-old Rock Slide, a recent winner at Churchill Downs, as well as a pair of A.P. Indy 2-year-old fillies, Charmed Gift, an allowance winner around two turns, and the unraced Tell Seattle.

Two months ago Dick Lundy became the private trainer for owner Ernie Paragallo, who has raced at Fair Grounds before. Lundy is still in the process of assembling Paragallo's stock. The high-percentage East Coast-based trainer Richard Dutrow is at Fair Grounds for the first time, while Carl Nafzger's main string will still be in Florida.

Robertson, who has usually spent the winter at Oaklawn Park, has a nice mix of claiming horses and developing youngsters, while the Kentucky-based Foley has unveiled some promising 2-year-olds this year. Sumja, who worked here in the early 1990's as Amoss's assistant, also is in town for the first time, and hopes to do well with mid- to high-level claiming horses.

But trainer Al Stall, who grew up at this racetrack, put the influx of newcomers in perspective. "There are some new people, but it will probably stay about the same on top. Tom [Amoss] and [Steve] Asmussen and some others aren't going anywhere," he said.