01/05/2006 12:00AM

Alumni Hall's specialty is bouncing back

Bill Straus
Alumni Hall, winning the Fayette, enters the New Orleans 'Cap off an eighth in the Clark.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If Alumni Hall and West Virginia - two contenders in Saturday's New Orleans Handicap - were human athletes, it wouldn't be hard to characterize them. Alumni Hall would come from a family of star players, facing the challenges of high expectations. West Virginia would be a talent-rich player whose lack of mental focus would sometimes contribute to losses.

Although I do not believe there will be much value offered on the impeccably bred Alumni Hall, he is my selection in the New Orleans Handicap, contested this year at the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs. A full brother (by A.P. Indy) to Secret Status, the 2000 Kentucky Oaks winner, Alumni Hall easily had the most lucrative 2005 campaign of any New Orleans Handicap entrant, winning five races and more than $424,000. Three times last year he won stakes, most notably in the Ben Ali and the Fayette Handicap, a pair of Grade 3 events at Keeneland.

Now he's shooting for his first Grade 2 in the New Orleans Handicap, an important race given his pedigree and eventual career at stud.

Coming off an eighth in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 25, Alumni Hall's last-race finish is not as strong as others in the New Orleans Handicap. In light of his history of bouncing back from subpar efforts, though, his poor showing is forgivable.

Using Beyer Speed Figures as a guide, I looked through his past performances and found five instances in which Alumni Hall regressed 5 or more Beyer points from his previous race figure. (His Beyer in the Clark represented an 11-point drop.) In each race following a regression, he moved forward, quite often running Beyers that were among his best.

Alumni Hall's record illustrates this, too. He has 3 wins, 1 second, and 1 third in these post-regression starts.

In contrast to Alumni Hall, West Virginia comes into the New Orleans Handicap off a strong recent effort, a neck defeat to Philanthropist in the Queens County Handicap on Dec. 10. He ran reasonably quickly, but exhibited questionable desire. Turning into the stretch, jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. seemed to have loads of horse, but when he asked West Virginia for his best, West Virginia stayed even-paced and seemed to wait on the opposition. This allowed Philanthropist, whom he had passed in early stretch, to come back and beat him.

Trainer Todd Pletcher adds blinkers to West Virginia for the New Orleans Handicap, seemingly a move to try to get more effort from West Virginia through the lane. The blinkers-on angle is not Pletcher's statistical strength - he is 3 for his last 34 with the move - but to those who watched West Virginia's last race, it seems a fitting change.

I'm not a big fan of equipment changes with older horses; the changes are often made on horses who are frustrating their connections. Those types tend to frustrate bettors, too, with the blinkers on or off.

As for the others, I like Silver Axe as a live longshot and will consider him as an alternative if Alumni Hall is bet too heavily. Silver Axe is a price horse to throw into the exotics, at the very least.

A closer, Silver Axe might appear to be at a disadvantage in what looks like a paceless race, but he has surprisingly fared well rallying behind slow early splits. He has also trained over the Louisiana Downs track, unlike Alumni Hall and West Virginia.

It should be pointed out that Tom Amoss, his trainer, has won two New Orleans Handicaps, as has Neil Howard, the trainer of Alumni Hall.