12/27/2001 12:00AM

Age hasn't slowed Neon Shadow

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NEW ORLEANS - It's good to have a back-up plan. E Z Glory finished fourth at 4-5 in the Tenacious Handicap here earlier this month. Disappointing, but to find another horse for the Louisiana Handicap, the next race in a series of route stakes for older horses at Fair Grounds, all trainer Carl Bowman had to do was look down his shed row. Saturday, he will trot out the old warhorse, Neon Shadow, about to turn 8 but still sound, eager, and going strong.

While E Z Glory rests up for a stakes return next month, * will contest a race he won two seasons ago and ran in again last year with disastrous results, when he took the worst of a traffic jam on the first turn, never had a chance to run his race, and finished far back. Poor showings have been few and far between for Neon Shadow, who has won 11 times in a 26-race career.

A gelding by the obscure Florida stallion Hooched, Neon Shadow won the first six starts of his career at Tampa Bay Downs before shipping to Churchill Downs, where he finished third in the Aristides Handicap and was sold to Tom and Bonnie Hamilton, with Bowman taking over his training. That was 2 1/2 years ago, but Neon Shadow, still a solid listed-stakes class horse, has not started showing his age yet.

"He's one of those professional horses with a lot of class that's a pleasure to be around," Bowman said.

Not that Neon Shadow, a smart horse with a strong competitive instinct, doesn't have his quirks. Bowman said the gelding has a habit of pulling himself up in the stretch, be it in regular morning training, breezes, or races. When he has forged to the lead, Neon Shadow thinks his work is done.

It was his eccentricities and a troubled trip that led to a sub-par performance in his last start at Hoosier, but Neon Shadow picked up some unexpected company in a recent workout here, which stirred his competitive juices and led to a strong five-furlong breeze that should have him set up to rebound Saturday. And if not this year, then maybe next.

"Right now, he thinks he can go on for two more years," said Bowman.

Stidham's patience is paying off

A hot start by trainer Mike Stidham at the Fair Grounds meet has been somewhat lost in the onslaught of winners from the huge stable of Steve Asmussen, who already has started more than 80 horses here, and Tom Amoss, who has won at a 45 percent clip so far this meet.

"Fair Grounds is a tough meet," said Stidham, who dueled with Amoss for the trainer's title here two seasons ago. Even so, Stidham's nine winners from 30 starters have put him in a mood to joke about the strength of the competition. "I thought we'd be strong enough to give Asmussen a run for his money - if we combined my winners with Amoss's."

Stidham may have no illusions about contending for the training title, but he can take satisfaction in a plan well executed. Stabled at Arlington this summer, Stidham patiently put a solid foundation in a group of 2-year-olds he expected to run well this fall as they matured and had opportunities to compete at longer distances. Those horses have performed well at Fair Grounds, especially on turf.

On Dec. 9, Stidham swept a pair of 2-year-old filly maiden grass races, and on Dec. 6 he won a good 2-year-old entry-level allowance with the Three Kings Stable's colt, Extra Check.

Extra Check won his maiden by five lengths this summer when he was switched to turf and is unbeaten in two grass starts. He is scheduled to race again Jan. 4 when he tackles stakes company for the first time in the Black Gold Handicap.

Stidham said Extra Check "turned a corner" with his recent win, and that the colt has blossomed physically, a perception backed up by Extra Check's Dec. 24 half-mile breeze in 48.80 seconds, one of the fastest on a heavy worktab.

* Sunday's Truly Bound Handicap for older fillies and mares over a route of ground will attract a short field headed by Gold For My Gal and Scoop. Gold For My Gal won the race last year by more than six lengths, but has won only once since then. The 3-year-old Scoop comes off a win in the Grade 3 Indiana Breeders' Cup Oaks.

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