01/17/2003 12:00AM

Bred to sell, born to run

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NEW ORLEANS - When trainer Neil Howard's horses stand in their Fair Grounds stalls, many of them look like the most beautiful racehorses imaginable. Immaculately groomed, with world-class pedigrees, they have rich coats that glow in the barn's half darkness.

But the darkness in the stalls can obscure other things: a turned out leg here, an unshapely foot there. These horses are hardly rejects, but many of them failed to meet the exacting standards that would allow them to be sold for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars.

Howard's operation revolves around owner Will Farish and his associates. Farish, the owner of Lane's End Farm, is heavily involved in racing, but most of the horses he breeds are sales prospects first, racing prospects second. If they don't have the physical tools as yearlings or 2-year-olds to command top dollar at auction, they get sent to Howard.

"Believe me, I consider myself the most fortunate person in the world to work for the Farishes," Howard said. "At Lane's End, they strive to sell the best. The occasional horse they don't sell because of a conformation flaw ends up in the racing stable."

But there are exceptions, and one of those, Mineshaft, could turn out to be special. Mineshaft started his career in England, but came to this country early last year in order to race on dirt. He has started twice here, both times in allowance races, and twice has won impressively. Sunday, he makes his North American stakes debut in the $75,000 Diplomat Way Handicap.

Howard is a cautious, judicious man, but his demeanor brightens talking about Mineshaft. This is not one of the horses taken off the sales rack because of imperfections.

"Mineshaft's a totally different story," Howard said. "He's a perfect horse. Mr. Farish owns him in a partnership [with Temple Webber and James Elkins], and those guys like to race."

Bred by his owners, Mineshaft is by A.P. Indy and out of Prospectors Delite, one of Farish's most productive mares. She already has produced the graded stakes winner Tomisue's Delight, and the stakes winner Rock Slide, who is stabled right next to Mineshaft at Fair Grounds.

Mineshaft began his career with trainer John Gosden in England, where Farish is serving as the American ambassador. He won his maiden at Newmarket in his second start, but finished fourth and sixth when tested in stakes races.

"Gosden was very high on the horse, but he told Mr. Farish that when he'd train him on the all-weather gallops, he'd look totally different," Howard said. "They agreed that the best chance would be for the horse to come back here and try the dirt."

Howard said he hadn't cranked Mineshaft up for his first start at Churchill Nov. 27. He wasn't surprised Mineshaft won, but his fast one-mile time of 1:36.20 impressed Howard. Mineshaft was no less impressive winning a two-turn dirt allowance Dec. 20 at Fair Grounds, running one mile and 40 yards in 1:38.80, one of the fastest times at the distance ever here.

Because Mineshaft has correct conformation, he can train with relatively few problems. This is one of the easy ones. In many cases, Howard works and works just trying to help a physically incorrect young horse make it to the races.

"A real well-bred filly, if I'm not seeing that she can run, we'll just send her home," Howard said.

Howard sometimes takes broadsides in the racing community. Some say Howard, with so many well-bred horses, has a trove of riches to mine. Others complain that he runs so little. But both criticisms ignore the way the outfit works. The barn's job is to enhance the value of horses for breeding purposes. The idea is to win, but the idea is to win stakes races. If Howard doesn't start as many horses as many outfits, it's because he must pick his spots with care.

He seems like the perfect guy for the job. Howard plays things very close to the vest, but it takes little time to see his intense commitment to making things work. He also is well liked by his peers.

"Neil truly is one of the good guys," said trainer Steve Asmussen. "He treats me exactly the same now as he did 12 years ago when I was coming up."

Howard won't speculate on how good Mineshaft may be. That's not his style. But he knows expectations are high, and it's clear he likes the horse himself - a lot.

"I'm always apprehensive, but he's trained like a decent horse," he said.

And if Mineshaft turns out to be a star without having to overcome problems, well, it says no less about his trainer.