01/26/2002 12:00AM

Card requires clever handicapping

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NEW ORLEANS - The tail end of the Fair Grounds Monday program challenges all sorts of handicapping strategies. Try to find a developing young grass filly in the eighth; sort through a full field of mid-level turf allowance horses in the ninth; and get out your pedigree books and training race notes for the nightcap, a good-looking maiden sprint for 3-year-olds.

The featured ninth, to be run at about one mile on turf, is written for second-level allowance horses or $40,000 claimers, and it drew an overflow field of 14, 12 of which will be permitted to start. Sifting through the field's bulk, the eye immediately lands on two horses, Clutch Player and Dancing Nelson.

Clutch Player was tossed into the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby last season after a blowout allowance win, but struggled in stakes and was taken out of training over the summer. He returned to racing for trainer Dallas Stewart and owner Thomas Vanderhyde in a Churchill sprint Nov. 14, finishing an even fourth, then ran an excellent race going two turns on turf here Dec. 22. The Fair Grounds grass course is no place for route speed, but even though he dueled on an honest pace, Clutch Player did not fold in the stretch and finished third, beaten only two lengths.

Clutch Player a son of A.P. Indy with turf blood in his female family, has returned to work three times, including a bullet five furlongs Jan. 22.

Dancing Nelson finished a neck behind Clutch Player in that Dec. 22 race, and might have won had he ever shaken free of traffic in the stretch. Trainer Jerry Quinn has had a good meet with limited starters, winning two of five races.

The eighth, a first-level allowance for 3-year-old fillies, marks the return of Ntombi, who has not raced since winning a stirring stretch duel here Dec. 7. She's returned to work four times here for trainer Michael Dickinson, and with only two starts under her belt has room to improve Monday.

Her main challengers are Speed to Burn, twice beaten as the favorite here, and Ruby Red Slippers, who had trouble in her last start.

The 10th is a feast for fans of raw talent, as impressive Fair Grounds schooling race horses Minister Slew, State of Shock and others take on World Trade and Mr. Campbell Sir, the two experienced horses who have shown some ability. State of Shock was a standout schooling race winner here Jan. 16 and has a lot of early speed, while Minister Slew, bred to go long, finished well in his schooling race a week earlier.

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