12/26/2002 1:00AM

Better Talk Now needs clean trip

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NEW ORLEANS - They've traveled from afar to reach Fair Grounds by Saturday for the $100,000 Woodchopper Handicap, the last turf stakes restricted to 3-year-olds, but none has journeyed longer than Better Talk Now. Yet his 20-hour van ride from Maryland earlier this week can't compare with his terrible trips this summer.

Better Talk Now had enough trouble in his two turf races at Saratoga to earn a reputation. In August, he was heavily favored to win an allowance race, but despite zigging and zagging, ducking in and out, Better Talk Now's rider never found even the narrowest hole through which to run. Better Talk Now finished eighth, somehow beaten less than two lengths. Next up was the Grade 3 Saranac Handicap, which developed more like a rugby scrum than a horse race for Better Talk Now, who wound up sixth.

"I guess a lot of people noticed, because after he lost twice I did get a lot of calls asking to buy the horse," trainer Graham Motion said.

But Better Talk Now had already been sold. Just before his run of bad luck and after winning his turf debut by nine lengths, Better Talk Now had been sold privately by owner-trainer Diane Perkins to Brushwood Stable. And since leaving Saratoga, his career has been on a much smoother track. Better Talk Now crushed turf allowance horses at Delaware and Aqueduct in his last two starts, and if he can avoid traffic and runs his race on Saturday, he will win the Woodchopper.

"I thought his last race was a move forward," said Motion, who never has started a horse at Fair Grounds. "I don't really know how good he is yet."

Motion will take Better Talk Now to Florida after this race, but this fall the colt was with him at Fair Hill training center in Maryland. "He's a horse that does well there, with that atmosphere," he said. "We have dirt gallops and wood chips, and he really does well on wood chips. I feel like turf horses go better on them."

Bettors will find many attractively priced options in the Woodchopper, though none has shown the raw talent of Better Talk Now. Major Rhythm will benefit from returning to turf after racing on dirt in his last start. He and Woodchopper starter Extra Check ran on equal terms at Arlington this summer. Runaway Choice was disqualified from an allowance win over older horses in his last start, and Skate Away beat elders by a nose here in his last start to stay unbeaten on grass.

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