03/05/2002 1:00AM

Charmed Gift has work cut out


NEW ORLEANS - Trainer Neil Howard will try for his second Grade 2 win in a week when Charmed Gift runs Saturday in the Fair Grounds Oaks. Tuesday, Howard looked on as Charmed Gift, second in the Grade 3 Silverbulletday in her last start, breezed a half-mile in 48.40 seconds shortly after Fair Grounds morning renovation break.

"When these young fillies have been going steadily, you don't do too much with them between starts," said Howard, who won Sunday's New Orleans Handicap with Parade Leader. Still, Charmed Gift, her chestnut coat gleaming, clocked a solid time working alone on a racing surface that was fairly dull.

Like all the local trainers with a horse for the Oaks, Howard fears Take Charge Lady, who is to ship here from Florida Thursday with her stablemate Repent, the Louisiana Derby favorite. Take Charge Lady made an easy early lead and ran away with the Silverbulletday, winning by more than eight lengths and equaling the track record for 1 1/16 miles, the Oaks distance.

The Oaks could play out similarly. Only five or six horses are expected to run, and on paper no one, with the possible exception of Lake Lady, can stay with Take Charge Lady on the lead. Lake Lady made the first run at Take Charge Lady in the Silverbulletday and paid the price, fading to finish fourth, and her connections can't be excited about chasing Take Charge Lady again.

The other likely starters in the race are Chamrousse, third in the Silverbulletday, and new faces Lotta Rhythm and, perhaps, Persimmon Ridge.

Valhol hurting

Valhol came out of the New Orleans Handicap with soreness in his leg, and an injury sustained during the race might have contributed to his dull performance. The second choice in the New Orleans Handicap off his powerful win in the Whirlaway Handicap, Valhol never got into the race and finished eighth.

Valhol's trainer, Dallas Keen, said Valhol was noticeably sore on an area of his leg close to where a split bone had been removed. He theorized Valhol might have hit himself with his hoof sometime during the race. Keen said Valhol jogged in the shed row Monday morning and seemed to be feeling better, but X-rays and an ultrasound were scheduled to be performed early this week.

Keen mixed concern for Valhol's welfare with disappointment over his race. "It was heartbreaking," Keen said. "I'd never felt more confident with a horse going into a race. I guess it's just part of the roller coaster."

Charioteer to press pace

Repent's position as the Louisiana Derby favorite only was enhanced by the news that trainer Todd Pletcher intends to run the allowance winner Charioteer in Sunday's Grade 2 race. Charioteer comes off an 8 1/2-length victory in a six-furlong Gulfstream allowance race on Feb. 16. Charioteer led for much of that race and his natural speed figures to place him close to the pace in his first start around two turns.

What that means is no easy lead for Bob's Image, who set an extremely fast pace but still finished well to be a clear second behind Repent in the Risen Star Stakes here Feb. 17. Without Charioteer, Bob's Image, who will be ridden for the first time by Pat Day, might have been able to dictate the pace Sunday.

Charioteer and Repent could be joined by White Flame on a Thursday flight from Florida to New Orleans. White Flame won a second-level route allowance Jan. 26 at Gulfstream and trainer Niall O'Callaghan said he is leaning toward running him in the Louisiana Derby.

Also expected for the Louisiana Derby are Easyfromthegitgo, French Assault and It'sallinthechase, third, fourth, and fifth in the Risen Star. Kid Tristan, an easy winner of the restricted Fair Grounds Sales Stakes on Feb. 3, is possible. Terry Knight, trainer of the northern California-based Louisiana Derby prospect Publication, was boarding a plane late Tuesday morning, but in an abbreviated conversation said travel plans for Publication might have hit a snag.

Asmussen going for gold

The lucrative purses of the weekend's $350,000 Fair Grounds Oaks and $750,000 Louisiana Derby are compelling trainer Steve Asmussen to take another shot at both Take Charge Lady and Repent, the Kenny McPeek-trained runners who soundly defeated Asmussen's Lake Lady and Easyfromthegitgo here last month.

Asmussen is going into this with his eyes open. "I don't feel like we're taking them on again," he said. "We're just racing. It's a good opportunity financially for both horses. They're both training well, and I think they'll run good. But a good race doesn't mean they'll win. You've got to be realistic."

Both Lake Lady and Easyfromthegitgo completed their serious training Tuesday morning at Fair Grounds, with half-mile workouts after the mid-morning renovation break. Both worked alone, with jockey Donnie Meche up. Lake Lady went off first, then Easyfromthegitgo followed 20 minutes later. Lake Lady was timed in 50 seconds, Easyfromthegitgo in 50.20.

"My main concern was not taking too much out of them," Asmussen said. "It's the third race in six weeks for both of them. I wanted a strong, steady work. I want to keep their strength up."

Real Cozzy getting back in action

Real Cozzy, last year's Fair Grounds Oaks winner, rejoined trainer Danny Peitz's stable on Sunday, went to the racetrack for the first time Tuesday, and is set to begin her final preparations for a 2002 campaign.

Real Cozzy hasn't raced since she finished seventh in the Gazelle Handicap on Sept. 8 at Belmont Park. Her performance in that race was a far cry from second-place finishes in the Grade 1 Mother Goose and Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, and sensing that Real Cozzy wasn't thriving, Peitz and owners Robert and Lawana Low took the filly out of training.

Real Cozzy spent the winter at Blalock Farm South near Ocala, Fla., and though Peitz reported that she had not yet breezed, Real Cozzy has been galloping strongly over a training track. "She's ready to work," Peitz said. "We just decided to get her back to the track first."

If Real Cozzy's training progresses well, Peitz hope to have her ready to race sometime in May.

In High Gear may start at meet

In High Gear, one of the more impressive early-season 2-year-old winners last year in New York, is cranking up for his seasonal debut, and trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said he hopes to start In High Gear before the end of the Fair Grounds meet.

Tuesday, In High Gear had his fourth breeze this winter, working a half-mile in 48.40 seconds.

In High Gear made his career debut June 10 at Belmont. He dueled on the lead throughout the race, edging Warners by a neck and running five furlongs in 56.60 seconds. Warners finished nearly 15 lengths ahead of the third-place horse.

In High Gear was suffering from a problem in his stifle that had to be addressed after his first start, and the colt has not raced since. But Dutrow feels In High Gear is coming back as the same horse he was before. "I have a feeling now he's every bit as good as he was then," he said.

If Dutrow does get a race into In High Gear at this meet and the colt runs well, he could be pointed to the Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland or the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct.

Different paths for Parade Leader, Graeme Hall

Parade Leader and Graeme Hall, the one-two finishers in the New Orleans Handicap, are headed in different directions for their next starts.

Neil Howard said Parade Leader likely would make his next start in Keeneland's Ben Ali Handicap next month. "I want to give him a little break," Howard said. "He's run hard down here all winter."

Todd Pletcher, who trains Graeme Hall, said his horse would run next in the Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park, where Graeme Hall won the Arkansas Derby two years ago

- additional reporting by Jay Privman