Except for many of the faces, very little is "usual" about Fair Grounds' 134th season of Thoroughbred racing that opens Saturday.Most notably, there's the location: Harrah's Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, more than 300 miles northwest of Gentilly Boulevard, a move necessitated by damage to Fair Grounds by Hurricane Katrina.There's the starting date, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, five days earlier than Fair Grounds' traditional opening day.There's the 37-day meet, which is the shortest in modern Fair Grounds history, and correspondingly, a stakes schedule half the size of previous years. However, purses should be at a record level, averaging $315,000 per day."It's safe to say we are dealing with a unique situation," said Fair Grounds president and general manager Randall Soth, "not just for our staff and the people at Harrah's Louisiana Downs, but our horsemen as well. That said, we are anxious to get started and we are looking forward to an outstanding meet."Despite the last-minute changes, horsemen have responded well to the meet."Everyone is excited," said Fair Grounds director of racing Ben Huffman. "They like the purse structure and the stakes schedule. The trainers who are here are champing at the bit to race."Steve Asmussen, who has won five consecutive Fair Grounds training titles, will have a full stable, as will Fair Grounds regulars Tom Amoss, Al Stall Jr., Bret Calhoun, Bobby Barnett, Mike Stidham, Patrick Mouton, Larry Robideaux and Sam David Jr.
With the shift of this year's meet to Louisiana Downs, trainers such as Cole Norman – who has won the last eight Louisiana Downs training titles – will have a major presence this winter, along with Steve Wren, Terry Brennan, Stanley Roberts and Morris Nicks.Ronny Werner, who stabled at Fair Grounds through 2004, is back this season. Other newcomers include Tom Proctor, Joe Woodard, Grant Hofmans, Ralph Nicks and Martin Lozano.The jockey colony is once again led by Robby Albarado, who will be seeking his record seventh Fair Grounds riding title. As usual, Louisiana natives are plentiful in the jockey's quarters, including Fair Grounds regulars Corey Lanerie, Gerard Melancon, Brian Hernandez Jr., E.J. Perrodin and Larry Melancon. Also back are James Graham, who was second to Albarado in wins last season at Fair Grounds, and Calvin Borel, who returns to the FG meet after a one-year absence.The stakes schedule opens with a pair of events for Louisiana-bred 2-year-olds on the turf: the Gentilly on Saturday and the Sarah Lane's Oates on Sunday. Four graded stakes are on the schedule, all on the first two Saturdays of January. The $400,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) is slated for Jan. 7, while RTTD Kickoff Day features three $250,000 grade III events – the Risen Star, Silverbulletday and the Bayou Breeders' Cup Handicap.