12/09/2003 12:00AM

'Conscious' must time move

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NEW ORLEANS - Now it's clear why trainer Keith Desormeaux wanted Conscious Contact back.

Desormeaux left Fair Grounds last season with Conscious Contact, a 3-year-old Skip Away gelding, but he ran him in a $30,000 claiming race April 10 at Lone Star and lost him to the trainer Bubba Cascio. Twenty days later, Conscious Contact was back in for $30,000, and quickly, he was back in Desormeaux's barn.

There have been eight races for Conscious Contact since then, but no claiming tags, and after an excellent effort Nov. 12 at Delta Downs, Conscious Contact is part of a 10-horse field Thursday in the featured ninth race at Fair Grounds, a second-level allowance race at one mile and 40 yards.

Conscious Contact has post 10, potentially a tough spot, but Desormeaux said, he's "a manageable horse. He shouldn't be hung wide from out there."

If he can repeat his most recent effort, Conscious Contact could come out on top Thursday. Conscious Contact ran consistently after being reunited with Desormeaux, but after an entry-level allowance win in early June, he has lost seven times in a row. Several of those starts came on turf, and only in his last two races has Conscious Contact gotten back on dirt. In Desormeaux's mind, the surface switch has less to do with his horse's ascendant form than a change in venue and season.

"He loves this racetrack," Desormeaux said. "He's actually been a horse that it's hard to keep weight on, but he's noticeably heavier since it's cooled off."

In both recent starts, Conscious Contact has made big middle moves, only to flatten out in deep stretch, and Desormeaux would prefer to see him make a run later in the race. Also, Conscious Contact takes a class drop Friday - to get him a start before the Fair Grounds meet, Desormeaux ran Conscious Contact above his allowance conditions at Delta, and still he finished third of seven.

This is all positive, but Conscious Contact is far from a lock in a race that figures to be bet the way it looks on paper - wide open. Another horse likely to be among the favorites, and a logical contender, is Bannock Burner, who makes his first start since an ankle injury took him out of training in July. Bannock Burner won a one-turn mile maiden race at Arlington in his career debut and came right back to win at two turns on turf. He has trained well at Fair Grounds for his comeback.

"He's been doing well, touch wood, and he has class, but the question is how good he is," said Hilary Pridham, an assistant to trainer Mike Stidham.