11/13/2008 12:00AM

Autobeacat live shooter in Mr. Sulu


NEW ORLEANS - The trainer Eric Heitzmann basically grew up on the Fair Grounds backstretch, the son of a local trainer and tack shop owner. On Saturday, he can win his first stakes race at his childhood haunt.

Autobeacat, nearly cast off as a claimer last spring, hit career-best form for Heitzmann and owner Murray Valene this summer at Louisiana Downs, and he's a prime contender in the Mr. Sulu, a 1 1/16-mile grass race for Louisiana-breds. And looking ahead, Heitzmann plans to start Autobeacat in the $100,000 Champions Day Classic here next month.

Heitzmann ran a small Midwest stable through the 1990s, then spent eight years in Dubai as an assistant trainer before coming home to go back out on his own in 2006. He won one race his first year back - here at Fair Grounds - then endured a frustrating 2007, going winless with 51 starters.

This year, Heitzmann has 12 wins, and Autobeacat, out of the blue, has four of them. When Autobeacat came into Heitzmann's barn this spring, the horse - a solid allowance type - showed declining form from the Fair Grounds meet.

"When I got him, he was in good shape, but Mr. Murray, he had a lot of babies coming up, and he didn't think he'd have a big future with this horse," Heitzmann said.

Autobeacat debuted for Heitzmann on May 14 in a $25,000 claimer, finishing eighth in a too-short sprint. Three weeks later, Heitzmann ran Autobeacat for a $20,000 tag going two turns - and held his breath. "We were shaking in our boots going over there," he said. "I hoped we didn't lose this horse."

Autobeacat won, and Heitzmann believes the victory over lesser stock restored the horse's confidence. Emotional, physical, spiritual - whatever - Autobeacat turned into a tiger. He comes into the Mr. Sulu with 4 wins and 2 seconds from his last 6 starts, including a good turf-stakes win and a fine second to Jonesboro in an open dirt stakes.

Autobeacat will need another peak effort to win the Mr. Sulu in a field of 14. His chief rival probably is Desert Wheat, a three-time Fair Grounds grass course winner, and a regular in Louisiana-bred grass races. But while Desert Wheat is strictly turf, Autobeacat is equally adept on dirt, and a rain-out onto the main track won't hurt his chances. Also noteworthy is Willist, who has won 4 of 6 races on the Fair Grounds grass.