02/06/2003 12:00AM

A challenge for Bonapaw: Two turns


NEW ORLEANS - We already know how fast he is. Bonapaw has won sprint stakes at seven different tracks, and he ruled the Fair Grounds sprint colony last year before going on to a Grade 1-winning summer. How far Bonapaw can carry his speed is the question Sunday, when he is part of a good field in the $125,000 Whirlaway Handicap.

At 1 1/16 miles, the Whirlaway will tax Bonapaw's stamina, though this is not the first route of his career. Bonapaw last ran around two turns on Aug. 19, 2000, when he finished second in the Evangeline Mile. Way back in the winter of 1999, Bonapaw ran in several two-turn races at Fair Grounds, finishing ninth and fifth on dirt before narrowly winning a mile race on grass. He won the Hanshin at a mile last summer at Arlington, where one-mile races are contested at one turn.

Bonapaw, a 7-year-old, hasn't lost any of his early speed and easily can run a quarter-mile in less than 22 seconds. He won't be going that fast Sunday, but he will be on the lead. For how long, not even his connections can say.

"The plan was to stretch him out to two turns in the Whirlaway, and we're sticking to it," said Norman Miller, who trains Bonapaw for owners Jim and Dennis Richard. "It won't be easy."

The task of rationing Bonapaw's speed falls to jockey Willie Martinez, who rides Bonapaw for the first time. Gerard Melancon, Bonapaw's regular jockey throughout his career, was replaced shortly after Bonapaw finished sixth and last Jan. 12 in the Colonel Power Handicap in his first start back from a layoff. Shane Sellers rode Bonapaw in his major work for the Whirlaway, but, according to Miller, declined to take the mount on Bonapaw in Sunday's race, citing concerns about the gelding's ability to get two turns.

"Shane opted to go another way," Miller said. "He didn't believe [Bonapaw] could go the distance. We believe he can do it, but it's going to be a tough task."

Bonapaw isn't the lone speed in the Whirlaway. Balto Star, a confirmed front-runner, shipped here Wednesday from Florida, and at some point Sunday he will press Bonapaw. "I think they may let him go off by a couple lengths," Miller said. "Then we'll have to see."

A field of nine is expected for the Whirlaway. Mineshaft, the up-and-comer in the group, may be a narrow favorite.

No workouts yet for Tenpins

Tenpins arguably is the best older handicap horse stabled at Fair Grounds this winter, but it's possible he won't even make a start during the meet. Tenpins hasn't raced since Nov. 29, when he finished fourth in the Clark Handicap, and time is running out for him to be readied for the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap on March 2.

The New Orleans Handicap has been trainer Don Winfree's goal for Tenpins for the last couple months. But though Tenpins returned to training in January after a rest, it has taken him longer than expected to regain race fitness and he has yet to post a timed workout here. Even so, Winfree hasn't given up hope of making the the race.

"I'm really not sure yet," Winfree said. "With a little bit of luck he still could make it. I'm fighting with a little something right now, but when we get done with that we'll start to get serious."

Tenpins won 5 of 7 starts last year, including two Grade 3's and the Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap. Tenpins was a candidate for the Breeders' Cup Classic, but raced in the Clark instead.

It's another Amoss-Asmussen thriller

The race for leading trainer at Fair Grounds got hot and heavy last season, with Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss pushing hard through the final month to pile up wins. Asmussen eventually wore Amoss down, claiming his first title here, and this season Asmussen opened up a big lead early in the meet. But Amoss has gradually been cutting into Asmussen's edge, and through Monday's races he had pulled within five winners of Asmussen, 36 to 31. Asmussen has started 144 horses to Amoss's 115.

Robby Albarado, who arrived here late after a short break following the Churchill meet, has taken the lead in the rider standings. With a steady stream of winners the last several weeks, Albarado had amassed 56 wins through Monday, six more than defending champion Eddie Martin.

Seattle Hoofer works six in 1:14

The 3-year-old Seattle Hoofer, unbeaten in two starts, both around two turns, turned in a major work Thursday for his stakes debut, which is to come Feb. 16 in the Risen Star Stakes. Trainer Mike Stidham gave Seattle Hoofer a workmate for his six-furlong breeze, which was timed in a good 1:14.

Also working Thursday were the New Orleans Handicap-bound Learned, who went five furlongs in 1:02.60, and Tenacious Handicap winner Rock Slide, who went a half-mile in 51.80.