12/31/2002 1:00AM

Better setup for Connected

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NEW ORLEANS - First Discreet Hero, then Rock Slide, and finally Learned bowed out of Thursday's Louisiana Handicap, and what might have been a complex and interesting field has grown pallid. But it's all fine for Connected.

Connected finished third to Rock Slide and Discreet Hero in the Dec. 8 Tenacious Handicap, and his stock has risen with each defection. With a proper pace in front of him Thursday, Connected is the horse to beat in the $75,000, 1 1/16-mile Louisiana.

"He's due for some racing luck," said David Carroll, who trains Connected for Helen Groves and Helen Alexander. "He just needs some pace to run at."

Indeed, a tepid pace contributed to Connected's defeat in his last start. Pinched back at the start, Connected soon lagged far behind Rock Slide's opening quarter-mile of almost 25 seconds, and a loss was all but assured.

"Really, I thought he ran a good race just to finish third," said Carroll, who will add blinkers to Connected's equipment in the Louisiana.

Even if Connected wants to settle well behind the speed again, he and jockey Larry Melancon should get a better pace setup than in the Tenacious. Horrible Evening is sure to cut out faster fractions than Rock Slide did, and he could have company from either part of a Louie Roussel-trained entry - Intern and City Fear - or from Fighting Indians, who scratched out of last Saturday's Woodchopper in favor of this spot.

A case can be made that Horrible Evening - a winner of four of his last five starts - is the controlling speed in the Louisiana. Trainer Niall O'Callaghan has carefully picked Horrible Evening's spots, the last of which was the Dec. 21 Prairie Bayou at Turfway Park. There, Horrible Evening dictated the pace on a speed-favoring surface and won without a challenge.

Things won't be as easy for him this time. Fighting Indians, at least, should apply pressure at some point. A 4-year-old, Fighting Indians kept up with swift sprint paces last summer at Arlington, though he has learned to relax and will stalk the pace when asked.

Right now, it's hard to know what to do with Easyfromthegitgo, who just missed winning the Louisiana Derby last season. Easyfromthegitgo earned more than $600,000 last year while making the most of races restricted to 3-year-olds. But Easyfromthegitgo flopped last month in his first foray into the older horse division, finishing fifth, beaten more than 18 lengths, in the Great State Challenge Classic at Sam Houston.

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