11/19/2007 1:00AM

Trainers show plenty of interest in meet

EmailNEW ORLEANS - The horses have been breezing in bunches since the first week in November. The barns on the backstretch are swelling daily with horses from the East and Midwest. And thanks to an early draw schedule, racing programs through Saturday had been finalized as of early Monday afternoon.

The mood around Fair Grounds Race Course? Let's get it on.

The curtain comes up on the Fair Grounds 2007-2008 meet Thursday, and though the state of the physical plant will take many racegoers by surprise, the racetrack seems ready for the season. Fair Grounds is in the midst of constructing a new slot-machines parlor, causing chaos in the parking area. Once inside the grandstand, however, patrons will find things much the same.

And that goes all the way through the opening-day card, anchored as usual by the Thanksgiving Handicap, which drew an eclectic field of nine when entries were taken Friday. Nine, in fact, is about the norm for Thursday's 10-race opening salvo, which drew a healthy total of 96 entries. The programs on both Friday and Saturday, though, did even better, with 99 horses entered for Friday's races and an even 100 on Saturday.

The Saturday card is headed by the Pago Hop Stakes, a 3-year-old filly grass race that drew 13 horses, only 12 of whom can start. The race looks like a microcosm of changing trends at this meet, with entries from the stables of Bill Mott and Larry Jones, both of whom have new Fair Grounds strings this winter. Mott also has three horses entered on opening day, including Desert Wheat in a Louisiana-bred open turf allowance serving as a prep for the Louisiana Champions Day Turf.

Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss, Fair Grounds kingpins both, will be heavily involved in the first three programs, but no trainer will be busier than Pat Mouton, who has horses in six races Thursday, five races Friday, and three more Saturday.

Mouton has a horse for the six-furlong Thanksgiving Handicap, He's Royal Dee, but he will be among the longshots, having won only once in the last two calendar years. The likely favorites here are Going Wild, Stormin Baghdad, and Thunder Mission, all of whom exit allowance races in Kentucky.

Going Wild is one of two horses in the Thanksgiving Day trained by Bret Calhoun, who also has entered the speedy Orphan Brigade. Others in the race are Mean Butterbean, Wheaton Home, Zarb's Dahar, and Atticus Kristy.