03/25/2010 12:00AM

Battle Plan finally hitting stride

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Bob Coglianese
Battle Plan romps in his last race, winning by five lengths and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 109. Saturday will be his first stakes start.

NEW ORLEANS - With Battle Plan, good things may be about to come to those who wait, and wait, and wait some more. Battle Plan did not get to the races until the fall of his 3-year-old year, then not long after that needed a year off to recover from a hairline fracture in a cannon bone. Here it is late March of his 5-year-old year, and he has run a mere four times.

But his last two starts may have been previews of coming attractions. Battle Plan returned from 51 weeks on the sidelines to win a first-level allowance race at Gulfstream, then came back last month and crushed a second-level allowance field by five lengths, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 109, and, at long last, the opportunity to run in a stakes race.

Battle Plan makes that stakes debut on Saturday at Fair Grounds in the Grade 2, $300,000 New Orleans Handicap, and though no one in the race has less experience than him, he will garner plenty of support based on his last two victories.

"He's obviously a very talented horse, but minor injuries have limited him to a four-start campaign," his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said Thursday morning. "Hopefully he can now string together consecutive races. He's got a great pedigree. He's a big, beautiful horse. He's got a lot going for him."

Battle Plan, a homebred from Overbrook Farm, is by Empire Maker, and is out of the champion filly Flanders. He drew post 9 in a field of 10 that will go 1 1/8 miles, the same distance as the Louisiana Derby two races later.

The major prep at Fair Grounds for the New Orleans Handicap is the Mineshaft Handicap, and the first three finishers out of that race - Stonehouse, General Quarters, and Giant Oak - are back.

General Quarters has finished second in all three of his starts this meet. He landed the far outside post. Both he and Battle Plan have good tactical early speed, so look for both to try and cross over before the first turn.

Giant Oak, a big, hulking colt, benefits by drawing the rail, and by the realization of his connections that he is best suited to dirt racing in which he makes one run. Giant Oak was making his first start in nearly three months when he ran in the Mineshaft, so he figures to move forward.

"He was against the bias last time, and he was not 100-percent ready," said trainer Neil Pessin, who is overseeing Giant Oak this winter for his primary trainer, Chicago-based Chris Block. "From the one hole, we'll just take him back and let him come charging down the lane. You've got to have a clear trip, though. He's so big, you get him stopped, you're dead."

Awesome Gem (4 for 9 on dirt), Hold Me Back (the 2009 Travers runner-up), and local kingpin Star Guitar are other prominent players.

Star Guitar has won 12 times in 15 starts. He disappointed in last year's New Orleans Handicap when he was compromised by an off track and wide trip.

"There's not much in Louisiana for a while," said Al Stall Jr., who trains Star Guitar. "There's a Louisiana-bred day at Louisiana Downs coming up, but word on the street is there won't be a race for older horses on dirt. He's on top of his game. His work Monday" - a half-mile in 48 seconds - "was excellent. He was just breezing."