02/26/2002 1:00AM

Bay Eagle strongest on grass


NEW ORLEANS - Bay Eagle, eighth in the Preakness Stakes last spring, returns from a layoff in Fair Grounds's featured ninth race on Thursday. But more relevant than his finish in the Preakness was Bay Eagle's near-miss in the $200,000 Virginia Derby last summer, since that race, like Thursday's, is on turf.

Bay Eagle was one of 14 horses entered in the about-one-mile turf race, which is written for second-level allowance horses with a $40,000 claiming option. Six horses are stuck on the also-eligible list as Fair Grounds continues restricting turf races to eight starters. That policy changes Saturday.

Bay Eagle will be making his first start for trainer Frank Brothers, who became the semi-private trainer for Joe Albritton's Lazy Lane Farms late last year. Graham Motion had previously trained Bay Eagle, a homebred by Secret Hello.

Bay Eagle is a route horse through and through, and one who may be stronger at age 4 than 3. He won a two-turn maiden race by more than 12 lengths last winter at Laurel, thrusting himself into the national 3-year-old picture. He was fourth in the Lexington Stakes on a speed-biased track that did not suit him, and his race in the Preakness showed him to be a cut below the top 3-year-olds.

While many of those horses have fallen by the wayside now, Bay Eagle may be poised for a solid year. Thursday's race, in which he is the class of the field, is a good jumping-off point. Bay Eagle floundered over good turf at Saratoga in the Saranac Stakes, finishing ninth in the last start of his 3-year-old campaign, but his effort in the Virginia Derby was strong. Racing near the back of the pack on the far turn, Bay Eagle launched a bid that fell just a neck short of victory.

He has logged five works in the last five weeks here for Brothers, who wins a high percentage of starts with comeback horses. Willie Martinez has the mount.

The competition includes Al Ghazi, fourth here in a Jan. 28 race at this class level, but second in the start before when he ran at this condition for the first time. Trainer Danny Peitz is having a typically strong Fair Grounds meet, winning with 23 percent of his starters.

Culloden fits the race on form but is not the most willing horse on the grounds. He struggled to clear the first allowance level and did so only after a horse who beat him Dec. 13 was disqualified for interference.

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