02/08/2007 1:00AM

Can anybody catch Master Command?


NEW ORLEANS - A deadpan question was put to trainer Neil Howard this week: How's Mineshaft? Howard looked wistfully over at the first stall in his shed row, occupied four years ago by Mineshaft. "I wish," Howard said.

Instead of the horse Mineshaft, there is a Grade 3, $200,000 race named the Mineshaft at Fair Grounds on Saturday, and Howard has a horse for it, though Patriot Act has neither the speed nor the sheer ability of his champion predecessor. The issue for Patriot Act and others in the Mineshaft field is this: Can Master Command be caught?

Master Command is the only one of seven horses entered in the Mineshaft - Purim and Bureaucratic are cross-entered in the Fair Grounds BC- to have won a Grade 2 race, and he has the speed to dictate the pace Saturday. Master Command's most recent start came Nov. 24 in the Clark Handicap, in which he broke from post 12, was beaten a mile by the standout winner Premium Tap, and wound up fourth in a blanket three-horse finish for place. Master Command, with John Velazquez up, may start a short-priced favorite.

The 5-year-old Patriot Act's two defeats when favored in stakes races this meet came about because of a lack of pace. Termed by Howard "a grinder," Patriot Act would benefit from fast early fractions - but there may be no horse to push Master Command.

Multiple stakes winner Purim has a touch of speed, but trainer Tom Proctor won't decide until Friday in which race Purim will start. Welcome Again showed decent speed winning a third-level allowance race last month at Gulfstream Park, but the only time he has made an early lead was two summers ago in a 1 1/2-mile maiden race. Trainer Bobby Frankel said he believes Welcome Again, with only nine starts, possesses upside.

Eight-year-old Sandburr won the Louisiana Breeders' Cup in his most recent start, while Well Said is a sleeper. Well Said had an injury layoff last year that sidelined him between the March 18 Rebel Stakes and Dec. 10, when he turned in a powerful effort winning a second-level allowance race here. Well Said finished second in mud to slop-loving front-runner Good and Lucky on Jan. 22, and trainer Walter Bindner speculated that Well Said "might have bounced a little bit."

"I still liked the way he was striding out at the end," Bindner said. "I need to run him in here to see how he fits with stakes horses."