02/27/2004 12:00AM

Battle of New Orleans

Funny Cide, Peace Rules, and Ten Most Wanted (above) ship in to renew their rivalry in a tough edition of the New Orleans Handicap.

NEW ORLEANS - Early this week, Ben Huffman, the amiable first-year racing secretary at Fair Grounds, clammed up. Huffman declined to speak publicly about the New Orleans Handicap. The race looked too good to be true. Huffman feared jinxing it.

At midmorning Friday, his wondering and worrying ceased. The eight horses Huffman hoped would show up in the Grade 2, $500,000 officially were entered.

The result is pretty awesome. Three horses who raced in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, including the winner, Funny Cide, have shipped in to run. Peace Rules, third in the Derby and a Grade 1 winner, joined Ten Most Wanted, ninth in the Derby and another Grade 1 winner, on a Thursday flight from California. Funny Cide traveled by van and arrived before daylight Friday, accompanied by Seattle Fitz, who finished ahead of him three weeks ago in the Grade 1 Donn. Sir Cherokee, entered in last year's Derby before an injury derailed his start, came Thursday from Oaklawn Park.

The other three horses already were settled in. Saint Liam shipped from Florida in early February, while Comic Truth, the race's outsider, and the improving Spanish Empire, second last out in the Grade 3 Whirlaway, have stabled here all meet.

But Huffman's fears almost came to pass. A flight carrying Funny Cide and Seattle Fitz was aborted Wednesday because of mechanical problems. The horses wound up back where they started, and endured a long van ride the next day. Even so, Funny Cide appeared well enough as he walked the shed row Friday morning, and his trainer, Barclay Tagg, was relaxed and talkative. Tagg and Kiaran McLaughlin, Seattle Fitz's trainer, expressed little concern about the long trip and altered plans.

Tagg is more interested in seeing if Funny Cide can improve on the Donn. Funny Cide managed third but wasn't close to Seattle Fitz, to say nothing of Medaglia d'Oro, who ran off the screen.

"Maybe he can't beat Medaglia d'Oro," Tagg said. "I'm hoping he can move forward off that race. He could. I think he looks better right now than he ever has."

This race is a proving ground for 4-year-olds. Peace Rules was a disappointing fourth in the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 24 at Santa Anita. Sir Cherokee beat older horses Jan. 17 in the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston, while Spanish Empire won the Jan. 2 Louisiana Handicap before his good second to Olmodavor in the Whirlaway. Even the lesser-known Saint Liam and Comic Truth have just turned 4, and the Argentine-bred Seattle Fitz still is a 4-year-old on Southern Hemisphere time.

Seattle Fitz's race in the Donn looked like a career best, and Seattle Fitz, who came to this country from Argentina by way of Dubai, could be a force among older horses this year. He also could regress Sunday.

"I wish we had an extra week," McLaughlin said. "It's a little bit close, but he's doing well."

And then there is Ten Most Wanted, the towering colt from California who probably will be favored Sunday under Pat Day. Ten Most Wanted's outstanding 3-year-old season included an easy victory over Peace Rules in the Grade 1 Travers. But his last start, his first against older horses, was a dud, an eighth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic. There was an excuse, a hard bump on the first turn, but the performance ended Ten Most Wanted's year on a dissonant note.

Trainer Wally Dollase feels confident that Ten Most Wanted's season will start differently.

"He's been working sensationally," said Dollase. "He's just so talented."

Ten Most Wanted figures to be fully fit to get the New Orleans Handicap's nine furlongs, and he should have ample pace to chase. Funny Cide, Spanish Empire, Peace Rules, and even Seattle Fitz are forward racers who ought to ensure an up tempo. Peace Rules might be the quickest, but poor performances in the Breeders' Cup Mile and Sunshine Millions Classic darkened his form.

Trainer Bobby Frankel blamed a hot pace for the Breeders' Cup loss, and said Peace Rules "missed a lot of training" before his last start.

"He had a virus that was going around the barn," Frankel said. "He came out of the race in good form, and hasn't missed any training. I think he's going to run his race this time, so this should tell us where he fits."

Peace Rules won the Louisiana Derby here last season, and Frankel's main concern was a muddy track Sunday. The local forecast calls for clear skies through Saturday night, with a 10 percent chance of showers on race day.

The field

New Orleans Handicap

Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1Seattle FitzJ. Velazquez1159-2
2Funny CideJ. Santos1185-1
3Spanish EmpireE. Martin Jr.1156-1
4Saint LiamE. Prado11312-1
5Peace RulesJ. Bailey1197-2
6Sir CherokeeT. Thompson1158-1
7Comic TruthR. Albarado11410-1
8Ten Most WantedP. Day1203-1