01/10/2004 12:00AM

Coach catches a break

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NEW ORLEANS - Finally, things had gone the way trainer Gary Palmisano had mapped them out. Each fall, it seemed, he would enter Coach Rags in a prep race for the Louisiana Champions Day Turf, and like clockwork, the Fair Grounds grass course would come up wet the day of the prep. The race would be moved to dirt, Coach Rags would scratch, and he would go into the Turf without a race under a belt, exactly what Palmisano had tried to avoid.

This meet, the prep race stayed on turf, Coach Rags won, and he went into the Turf sharp and ready - and then that race was rained off grass. Coach Rags does not handle dirt, and he finished a distant sixth in the Turf. At his age, there will not be many more opportunities. But do not cry for Coach Rags, who at age 8 has won 10 of 34 starts and almost $420,000 for Palmisano and owner Vickie Krantz. Now, Coach Rags has qualified for a statebred allowance race here Monday, and he can add to his career totals.

Coach Rags has beaten up on this type of horse for years, and he ought to be favored again Monday on a course where he's won eight times in 22 starts with six seconds and three thirds. Coach Rags hadn't run in seven weeks when he cruised to a 1 1/2-length win in the Champions Day Turf prep, and he may well be tighter now than he was for that start.

Coach Rags runs best making one big move, and paceless races can give him trouble. But honest fractions seem assured in this spot, since Donna's Mailbag has been entered. Donna's Mailbag has never tried turf, and does not possess a grass-oriented pedigree, but the horse has talent. He was fourth in the Champions Day Sprint, but his trip there was far from ideal, and earlier in the year Donna's Mailbag easily beat the crack sprinter Zarb's Luck in a stakes race at Louisiana Downs.

There are two others to consider, especially if one believes the aging Coach Rags is vulnerable.

Zarb's Music also was rained off grass on Champions Day, and the best race of his career came last season on this turf course. Alice From Marigny, from the productive Tucker Alonzo barn, has won twice on this course, and comes off a sharp stakes win on the Delta Downs dirt.