01/23/2008 12:00AM

Absent Friend can end long dry spell

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At Gainsborough Farm in central Kentucky a decade or so ago, Fitnah was one of the mares the hired help tried to avoid. A short, stout chestnut, Fitnah was perpetually cranky, whether she had a foal by her side, was pregnant, or just was standing alone in a field. In short, she appeared to hold a serious grudge against human beings.

Her son Absent Friend is an 8-year-old gelding now, and, fortunately for the staff of trainer Pat Mouton, he came out differently.

"He is like a lamb," Mouton said. "Seriously, he has never ever given us a minute's worth of problems. You can go into his stall and do anything you want with him. He's a pussycat, okay?"

But just maybe, if Absent Friend were a little more aggressive, he might win a race now and then. As it happens, he comes into the featured ninth race Friday at Fair Grounds on a losing streak - a long losing streak.

Absent Friend's last win came 24 starts ago, in Oaklawn's Grade 3 Essex Handicap on Feb. 12, 2005. But the Fair Grounds feature, carded for 1 1/16 miles on dirt, and open to second-level allowance horses or $35,000 claimers, drew just seven entries, none of them especially strong. Absent Friend actually has a shot.

To win, he will have to run down Da Cardinal, who should be favored. Trained by Cody Autrey, Da Cardinal hardly is a prolific winner himself, having gone 1 for 9 in 2007, and 3 for 18 in his career. He contested a fast pace at this class level Dec. 15, and was run down late to finish second by three lengths, and his chances may hinge on how much speed the other possible early-pace horses - Tiz Stormin and Glamour Guy - wind up showing.

Autrey is one of the many former trainers of Absent Friend, a son of Runaway Groom whose career began in 2003 and spans the globe. His first race came five winters ago in Dubai, and in the U.S. he has started at 17 different tracks. Once a middling stakes horse, Absent Friend has settled into the midlevel claiming ranks. He has also settled upon a late-running style that usually propels him into contention but never seems to get him home in time.

"I've tried a lot of different things, but you just can't rush this horse," said Mouton. "He'll run when he's ready to run."

That stubborn streak - that would be the Fitnah coming out.