12/11/2003 12:00AM

Classic may usher in new rivalry


NEW ORLEANS - A hole was formed in the Louisiana-bred older horse division when Walk in the Snow went down with an injury in October. Walk in the Snow won last year's Champions Day Classic by more than two lengths and had raced competitively in open stakes races.

But two months after Walk in the Snow was sidelined, two horses have stepped up to fill the void, and the battle between Mr. Archibald and Spritely Walker in Saturday's $150,000 Classic may be the first round of an extended rivalry.

Spritely Walker was purchased by Heiligbrodt Racing Stable as a statebred stakes prospect a year ago. He floundered over the summer, running up the track in a pair of Louisiana-bred sprint stakes, but when trainer Steve Asmussen brought him back after two months off in October, Spritely Walker was a different horse. He easily won the Louisiana Breeders' Derby in his first race back, and nearly overcame a wide post and a late deficit Nov. 15 in the $100,000 Gold Cup at Delta Downs.

Mr. Archibald went through an even longer dry spell. Mr. Archibald lost seven times in a row after a commanding win in his career debut May 31, 2002, but he came to life in October, galloping to a 15-length victory in an entry-level statebred allowance. He returned three weeks later and beat Louisiana-bred money allowance horses by more than 11 lengths, setting a strong pace without tiring.

"He looked to me like he'd be a very hard horse to catch," Asmussen said.

Mr. Archibald, trained for the last three starts by Bret Calhoun, is a freak. He is by a $500 Louisiana stallion, Change Takes Time, and stands nearly 17 hands tall. But he is not a lanky, narrow horse. One day last week, Mr. Archibald came off the track after training and reared up on his hind legs. Calhoun was waiting at the gap, looking up.

"Man, he looked like a monster," Calhoun said.

Michele Rodriguez paid $20,000 for Mr. Archibald after she and her farm trainer, Stig Rasmussen, watched him train as a 2-year-old. Last season, he fought trouble in his hind end, and eventually needed surgery to repair his injured hocks. Rasmussen said Mr. Archibald also had throat surgery during a long layoff that ended in August, and Calhoun has worked to care for Mr. Archibald's chronic allergies.

"He doesn't really have any pedigree, but he's a grand-looking horse," Rodriguez said. "He's so big that giving him all those months off really helped solidify his body. I think he's the kind of horse you could look at taking out of the state and not being intimidated."

Maybe, but first Mr. Archibald must hold off Spritely Walker, who is coming to Champions Day in excellent shape. Heiligbrodt Racing does not often dabble in Louisiana-breds, but Spritely Walker looked last winter like a horse who could thrive in the statebred stakes program.

"When we bought him, we had hoped on pedigree he would do well in routes," Asmussen said.

But over the summer, Spritely Walker wasn't doing well at all. Stabled at Louisiana Downs, Spritely Walker "wasn't giving any effort in the morning," Asmussen said. "Seeing how lethargic he was, we decided he needed a change of scenery, to we moved him to Kentucky."

Spritely Walker had trained decently at Churchill, but Asmussen said his comeback win in the Louisiana Breeders' was a surprise.

"He had put in the miles, but it wasn't a 'can't wait to get him in there' kind of thing," said Asmussen. "But he's trained like a completely different horse since then."

Spritely Walker has neither the size nor the speed of Mr. Archibald, and he must hope White Star and Samlot can keep Mr. Archibald honest on the lead.