03/11/2009 11:00PM

Brass Hat's tank not yet on empty


NEW ORLEANS - Since his victory in the Massachusetts Handicap in September 2007, Brass Hat has lost eight straight races, and has finished in the money just twice. When he returned from an eight-month layoff in the minor Dust Commander Stakes at Turfway Park last month, he ran so poorly that the Equibase chart caller summed it up simply. "Dull effort," he wrote.

On paper, it would appear that Brass Hat, a gelding, is far removed from the heady days when he was considered one of the best older horses in the country. But Buff Bradley, who trains Brass Hat for his father, Fred, insists Brass Hat is not simply an old horse nowadays, and that is why Brass Hat is here at Fair Grounds, where he will face a strong group of older turf horses in the Grade 2, $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap on Saturday.

"If he wasn't doing as well as he is, we'd take him to the farm and retire him," Bradley said after bringing Brass Hat by van from Kentucky.

"The farm" is Fred Bradley's spread in Frankfort, Ky., where Brass Hat was born eight years ago. Brass Hat is the best horse ever raced by Fred Bradley, and trained by Buff Bradley. He has earned nearly $1.8 million, a sum that would be considerably more had Brass Hat not been disqualified from second place for a medication positive following the Dubai World Cup in 2006.

"He's been a big part of the stable for a very long time," Bradley said.

Bradley said Brass Hat simply "didn't like the track at all" at Turfway. "He never was in it," Bradley said. Health-wise, "He's doing great. I think he's as good as he was three years ago."

Brass Hat is winless in five starts on turf, but Bradley said he thinks the firm surface of the turf at Fair Grounds - barring rain - will suit Brass Hat more than the Polytrack at Turfway Park.

"He likes a firm surface," Bradley said. "He's never won on turf, but he's had some unfortunate trips. He's capable of being a good grass horse."

Au Moon taking a step back

Au Moon began the winter at Fair Grounds by finishing third to Friesan Fire and Patena in the Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 10. Friesan Fire and Patena are back in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby on Saturday, but Au Moon is bypassing that race and is running on the undercard in a first-level allowance, the fourth race of the day.

Trainer David Carroll said the decision was made to take a step back after Au Moon finished eighth of 13 in last month's Risen Star Stakes. Julien Leparoux, who has ridden Au Moon in his four prior races, again has the mount.

"He drew post 13 of 13, was wide, and when he tried to get out at the quarter pole, he got slammed," Carroll said. "When Julien got back, he was so frustrated. He likes the horse.

"We didn't want to throw him in the deep end again. If he runs well Saturday, we can look at a race like the Illinois Derby or the Arkansas Derby. I didn't want to run in the Louisiana Derby and risk having his head kicked in. Hopefully this race can answer some questions for us. If he performs well, he'll get another opportunity to prove himself."

El Caballo has options

El Caballo is entered in the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap on dirt on Saturday. He's also entered in the Muniz, to be run a half-hour later. Yes, Ralph Nicks is a good trainer, but, no, he's not so good that he's going to run El Caballo in both races.

"I knew both would have 14-horse fields," Nicks said. "I wanted to see where he drew, and then see whether it rains."

El Caballo won a second-level allowance race on the turf at Churchill Downs in November. He was scheduled to run on the grass in a third-level allowance here on Feb. 15. But rain forced that race to the main track. Nicks ran El Caballo anyway, and he won again.

"He got his fastest number ever in the mud," Nicks said. "My gut feeling is he's better on turf than the main, but it wouldn't hurt him to run on the main."

There is rain in the forecast.

"If it comes up sloppy and soft turf, he'll run on the main track," Nicks said.

Nicks will have until 45 minutes before the first of the two races, the New Orleans Handicap, to decide.

Lady Chace has best shot for Margolis

As his first Fair Grounds meet draws to a close, trainer Steve Margolis has two entered in stakes on the big day of racing. In the unexpectedly deep $125,000 Duncan Kenner, Margolis has asked Garifine to step up for a third time since coming here. And he sends Lady Chace out in the Bienville to take another shot at Classify.

After finishing second in his first race at Fair Grounds, Garifine has won twice in a row, and has begun to show the kind of talent expected of him when he was purchased as a 2-year-old for $1.8 million.

Margolis has expressed confidence in Garifine's ability, while recognizing the difficulties presented by Ikigai and Kodiak Kowboy.

"We are realistic," said Margolis. "We know it is a tough race, and it came up a little tougher than we expected, but he has won races over the dirt at the Fair Grounds, and he's doing very well."

Garifine began training under Todd Pletcher, but showed little after winning his maiden, and was sent to train under Margolis.

"We are hoping he can step up and give us a little more," said Margolis. "He got sidetracked, when he was starting out, but hopefully he can step up and begin to be a return on his investment."

Margolis's most likely candidate for a Fair Grounds stakes win would be Lady Chace, who won her last start impressively, taking down a third-level off-the turf allowance by 5 1/2 lengths on Feb. 12. She raced against probable favorite Classify two races ago, finishing second by 2 1/2 lengths. If Lady Chace improved in her last-out victory, it could be enough to turn the tables.

* Here's a sign that it's almost spring. After Proudinsky and Wishful Tomcat run on Saturday for trainer Bobby Frankel, they will not head back to California, but rather to Kentucky to prepare for next month's Keeneland meet, according to Ruben Loza, the longtime Frankel assistant who is here with both horses.

- additional reporting by Abram Himelstein