12/04/2003 1:00AM

Almuhathir a threat in Tenacious

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NEW ORLEANS - A week ago Fair Grounds racing officials were hustling hard to avoid a short field in Saturday's Tenacious Handicap, but despite a $15,000 purse cut from last year, the race wound up with a highly playable field of 10. Here, bettors will find back class, solid grass form, and two horses from the powerhouse Steve Asmussen barn. But where's the winner?

For older horses at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, and with a purse slashed from $75,000 to $60,000, the Tenacious begins the series of handicap races for older horses at this meet, but it is a long way from here to the New Orleans Handicap. This race shapes up more as a high-end allowance than a graded stakes, with Almuhathir, Crowned King, and perhaps Spanish Empire as the top three contenders.

Almuhathir's season has been distinguished by consistent performance and a whopper of a win price. June 6 at Belmont, Almuhathir won a third-level Belmont allowance by a neck and paid $197.50 to win. "I've never had a horse pay that much," said trainer Danny Peitz.

Almuhathir backed up the surprise victory with a 9-1 score in his next race, but Peitz called Almuhathir's fourth-place finish in the Nov. 11 Stuyvesant at Aqueduct "disappointing," and initially had planned to skip the Tenacious.

"He's been much happier the last four or five days than when he first got down here," Peitz said Thursday morning.

Asmussen, who entered Easyfromthegitgo and Spanish Empire, also expects an improved performance from his horses. Easyfromthegitgo has failed to run in the money in four starts this year, and was dull Nov. 1 in a seven-furlong Churchill Downs comeback race. "He certainly needed that start," Asmussen said.

A maiden just four months ago, Spanish Empire romped to a 9 1/4-length victory at Keeneland, but was hard-pressed to win by a nose in a nonwinners-of-three allowance Nov. 5 at Churchill.

"We're looking for something more like the Keeneland race this time," said Asmussen.

Crowned King has never raced against older horses, and has not raced at all since Sept. 20, but he finished third to Ten Most Wanted and Soto in the Super Derby last out. The issue with Crowned King might be fitness. He has only two published half-mile breezes for this start.