01/10/2003 1:00AM

Bonapaw has Herculean task


NEW ORLEANS - The two horses who won the first two sprint stakes of the Fair Grounds meet square off Sunday in the $75,000 Colonel Power Handicap. But they aren't the story. What's worth paying to see is whether or not Bonapaw, the best sprinter at Fair Grounds, will win a stakes race less than two weeks after returning from a month of farm rest.

What Bonapaw will attempt to do is virtually unheard of in this age. After finishing fifth Nov. 30 in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, Bonapaw was vanned back to Louisiana and sent to Six Oaks Farm, where he normally spends his recovery periods. Bonapaw was turned out at the farm for about a month, then shipped less than two weeks ago to Fair Grounds, where he has logged a series of long-distance gallops under his trainer and exercise rider, Norman Miller. Now, without even the benefit of a timed workout, Bonapaw will try to regain his place atop the Fair Grounds sprint division.

To do so, he will have to beat six opponents, including Mountain General, winner of the Thanksgiving Day Handicap, and Kazoo, who won the Dec. 22 Gaudin here. The others in the six-furlong race are Cojet, Gracie's Dancer, Early Flyer, and Talknow.

On talent alone, none of them can stay with Bonapaw, who won this race last year by more than five lengths and captured the Grade 1 Vosburgh last summer by more than two lengths. At his best, Bonapaw can easily cruise a half-mile in about 45 seconds and have plenty left for his finish. But is Bonapaw at his best now? His owners, the twins Jimmy and Dennis Richard, are using this race as a springboard to the 1 1/16-mile Whirlaway Handicap here next month, and even if Bonapaw overcomes the circumstances those who wager on him will be rewarded with only a minimal win payoff.

Mountain General set a track record winning the Thanksgiving Day, but trainer Steve Asmussen described his fourth-place finish in the Gaudin as flat. "He was unable to muster the same type of performance [in the Gaudin]. He didn't run badly, but he wasn't as sharp."

Kazoo led all the way winning the Gaudin, but with Bonapaw likely to be sharp after a layoff that sort of trip is unlikely. Still, if Bonapaw comes up short, Kazoo, racing on Bonapaw's outside, could fall into a good pressing trip. Cojet and Gracie's Dancer need to move up a level from their efforts in the Gaudin.

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