02/06/2004 1:00AM

Badge of Silver: Long trips, shorter races

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NEW ORLEANS - The decision has been made: Badge of Silver is going to Maryland to run in the Grade 2 General George Handicap on Feb. 16 at Laurel. All that remains is getting the horse there, but that's not a simple task.

Horses just don't fly from New Orleans to Laurel, Md., in the dead of winter. You can get one there, if you're lucky, and if you have about $10,000 for a one-way flight. Ronny Werner, Badge of Silver's trainer, was fairly certain Friday morning that he had Badge of Silver booked on a direct flight on Feb 13. If the travel plans fall through, Badge of Silver probably will stay home.

"I'm not going to van him there," Werner said.

Badge of Silver will, however, take a van back to New Orleans, with a stopover at the central Kentucky farm of his owners, Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Not long after that, he will move to Kentucky with Werner's main string, and point for one-turn races in New York, the Carter Handicap on April 10, and then the Met Mile, Badge of Silver's main goal this spring.

What it all means is that Badge of Silver is unlikely to race again at Fair Grounds this season. That's a deviation from Badge of Silver's original schedule, which included a start in the New Orleans Handicap on Feb. 29. The concern that Ramsey and, to a lesser extent, Werner have is the fairly short period of time they have to get Badge of Silver from his six-furlong comeback race here last month to the nine-furlong New Orleans Handicap.

"Six furlongs to a mile and an eighth, it's not a problem if you've got more time, but this is a bit of problem," Werner said. "Ken wants to move him up the ladder [in distance] a little more slowly."

Badge of Silver went to the front when he easily won his sprint comeback race, but Werner cautioned that there will be no blazing fractions for Badge of Silver in one-turn races.

"He's not going to go out there and do 21 [seconds]. We're not going to tear him up," Werner said.

Bourque said to be retiring

Jockey Curt Bourque took off his mounts at Fair Grounds on Thursday and asked his agent, Paul Pembo, to stop naming him on horses. Pembo said Bourque told him he was retiring from riding.

The move was sudden and surprised those at Fair Grounds who know Bourque. On the backstretch late this week, several people who know Bourque said they hadn't spoken to him since his sudden decision.

"I called him Wednesday morning to tell him what he had to work that day," Pembo said. "He called me back a half-hour later and said he was retiring, and I haven't talked to him since. What I heard from some people is that he's fighting his weight, but I really don't know much."

Bourque has gotten in trouble for substance abuse in the past but has kept himself clean for several years. He has had successful recent meets at Fair Grounds and in Chicago, and through Thursday ranked sixth in the jockey standings here with 31 wins.

Rain a major factor

The rain has been hitting New Orleans in waves. And on the days it's not raining, the air is damp and heavy. The weather has been taking its toll on the Fair Grounds racetrack, which hasn't completely dried out in several weeks.

"Any time it rains like this, it throws you off schedule," said Paul Gregoire, the track superintendent. "There's only so much you can do to fight Mother Nature. It's been hard to tighten it up."

But Gregoire and his crew have been fighting. Wednesday, they bladed the inside paths, scooping up the top of the track, drying it as best they could and then putting the dirt back down. Horsemen on Friday said the track seemed to be in fairly good shape, and by post time Friday afternoon, the surface was listed as fast.

Handicappers probably have noted by now how much better the rail has been on especially wet days. The trend seems to have been more pronounced during this rainy spell, and Gregoire acknowledged that on sloppy and muddy days, the inside usually is the place to be.

"The silt runs down to the rail and tightens it up there," Gregoire said.

Clock stopper gearing up

Clock Stopper, second by less than a length to Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat last fall, has begun daily gallops after jogging here for a month.

Trained by Dallas Stewart, Clock Stopper hasn't raced since he won the Perryville Stakes at Keeneland by more than two lengths. In his race before the Perryville, Clock Stopper was a strong second to Cajun Beat in the Kentucky Cup Sprint.

Clock Stopper was mentioned as a candidate for the Breeders' Cup but chipped an ankle, had surgery, and was out of training for several months. Stewart said Clock Stopper was doing well but wouldn't breeze until March, and was unlikely to race at this meet.

Sales Stakes starts day's card

Sunday's Fair Grounds card lacks a true feature, but the biggest purse of the day is the $75,000 being put up in the Fair Grounds Sales Stakes, the day's first race.

The Fair Grounds Sales stakes is - unsurprisingly - restricted to horses that passed through last year's Fair Grounds sale of 2-year-olds, and only six were entered in this year's edition.

And good luck finding the winner. The nod - and it is a mild nod indeed - goes to Silver Indy, who ran poorly in his last start but comes out of an open entry-level allowance race.