01/27/2005 12:00AM

Alumni Hall is catching on

Jack Coady/Coady Photography
Alumni Hall, Robby Albarado up, wins the Maxxam Gold Cup last week.

NEW ORLEANS - Neil Howard is extremely pleased with the way Alumni Hall has come to hand for him at Fair Grounds this winter. A 6-year-old A.P. Indy horse, Alumni Hall won the biggest race of his career last Saturday, the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park, and has finally begun to live up to his regal breeding.

"He came back from that race very well," said Howard on Thursday morning at Fair Grounds. "It was kind of turning the corner for him, but believe me, nothing surprises me with this horse. He was meant to be a good one right from the start."

Alumni Hall didn't make it to the races until he was a 5-year-old because of a variety of minor ailments.

"He didn't run until he was 5 because he had so many physical problems," said Howard. "Nothing major, nothing broken, just a lot of soft tissue stuff."

Alumni Hall started to come around last winter at Fair Grounds, where he performed well in a training race, and won his debut at Keeneland. After finishing second in his first allowance try, Alumni Hall reeled off three consecutive wins, including the $75,000 Black Tie Affair Handicap at Arlington Park. After three out-of-the-money graded stakes attempts, Howard gave Alumni Hall some time off, then brought him back at Fair Grounds in a turf race, a surface he did not relish.

"I don't know why I put him in that race," said Howard. "I was just trying to see if I could open another door for him. In retrospect it was a bad decision. But everything has turned out well now."

Howard has experimented with running some of his horses on turf and dirt, sometimes with positive results. Shadow Cast won the Silverbulletday last year on the main track, and this season has won the Pago Hop on turf and the Truly Bound on dirt in her last two starts at Fair Grounds.

"She's a rarity," said Howard. "She runs equally well on both surfaces."

Graham on a roll

Jockey James Graham is the hottest rider at Fair Grounds right now. Last week he won on eight horses for eight different trainers, including the longshots Angel Baby (39-1), Flying Frisbee (33-1) and Trucker's Special (22-1).

"It's nice that so many trainers use me," he said. "They seem to be happy with the way I ride. You can't ride them all the same, you know."

Born in Dublin, Graham, 25, left home at age 15 to go to riding school in Ireland and eventually made his way to the U.S., where he was an accomplished apprentice before losing his bug last August. He didn't have the common problem of adjusting to becoming a journeyman.

"Within a week of losing my bug I won a Grade 3 race at Arlington," he said. "Ever since then I just kept rolling along."

Graham attributes his success to careful study of other riders.

"I just ride very aggressively and try to find the right spots on the track," he said. "Riding down here for the last couple of years, I've watched Robby Albarado carefully. He capitalizes on other riders' mistakes. Calvin Borel is another great one. Everyone has been very helpful to me. They explain to me when I've made a mistake. When you make the same mistake twice, that's when you get in trouble."

Graham said he enjoys riding at Fair Grounds in part because he feels comfortable living in New Orleans.

"Downtown, the way the houses are so close together along the narrow streets," he said, "it reminds me of home more than any other American city I've been to."