02/27/2003 12:00AM

Balto Star draws tricky post

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NEW ORLEANS - The field was set and post positions drawn Thursday for Sunday's New Orleans Handicap, a Grade 2 race with a $500,000 purse.

An excellent field of 11, headed by the 120-pound highweight Balto Star, was entered in the 1 1/8-mile race. Balto Star, who will be ridden by the local jockey Eddie Martin, drew post 3. The post could present a challenge. Balto Star

has abandoned the speed-crazy ways of his youth, and he rated outside off the pace in winning the Grade 3 Whirlaway here in his last start. But Balto Star still prefers to be close to the pace, and he has drawn inside the other speed in Sunday's race. When Bonapaw (post 5) and Booklet (post 8) set sail for the lead, the position Balto Star secures this time could be inside, not outside, other horses.

Balto Star, Best of the Rest, Strive, and Booklet arrived from Florida on Thursday. Best of the Rest, who drew post 1, comes off a win in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic, where he beat Booklet, a multiple graded stakes winner last year at age 3. Strive is the outsider in the group, having run in only two stakes races.

A three-horse California contingent, consisting of Sunday Break, Olmodavor, and Tracemark was scheduled to fly here Friday. The locals are Valhol, Bonapaw, Mineshaft, and Learned.

Valhol, another pace factor, drew post 4. Mineshaft has post 6 and should race in the second flight of horses, while post 11 does little to hurt the chances of Learned, who will drop back and rally late.

Balto Star is trying to duplicate the trip he took here three weeks ago for his solid win in the Whirlaway. He's housed in the same stall, and Balto Star's connections hope Balto Star might acclimate better than many other shippers making their first trip here.

"They're creatures of habit," said Mike McCarthy, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher. "He settled right in."

A healthy Cat Genius nears a start

The comeback of the 3-year-old colt Cat Genius continued Thursday when he worked a half-mile here in 48.80 seconds. Trainer Tom Amoss was pleased, and said that Cat Genius is closing in on the first start of his 3-year-old season.

Cat Genius hasn't raced since he was distanced last November in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. By virtue of three blowout wins to start his career, Cat Genius was the favorite in that race, but he stumbled badly at the start and grabbed a quarter, ripping away a piece of his hoof. Amoss said it was the worst such injury he had seen, and Cat Genius needed more than a month of rest for the injury to heal.

Cat Genius posted a quick five-furlong work here Feb. 14, and Amoss figured Thursday's breeze will put Cat Genius close to a comeback race.

"I think he's doing really well," Amoss said. "We're probably no more than a couple weeks away from a race with him."

With three wins, Cat Genius isn't eligible for first- or second-level 3-year-old allowance races, so his return will come in a stakes race.

- Private Emblem, the Arkansas Derby winner last year, worked a half-mile in 50.80 seconds here Thursday, his first racetrack breeze since he finished unplaced in the Super Derby last Sept. 21. Trainer Steve Asmussen tentatively is pointing Private Emblem to a comeback race in the Texas Mile on April 26 at Lone Star Park.