02/06/2002 12:00AM

Crucible tangles with lesser

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NEW ORLEANS - Finally there's no Bonapaw, no Abajo, no Robin de Nest. Crucible will appreciate that. Making his first start outside stakes company since last fall, Crucible deserves to win Fair Grounds's featured race Friday, a high-end sprint allowance.

The 7-year-old Crucible has turned in three solid races at this Fair Grounds meet, the fifth of his career, finishing third in two sprint stakes and second, beaten a nose after a troubled trip, in the Gaudin Handicap here Dec. 16. Always a tricky horse to train, Crucible revealed yet another foible to the Mark Frostad barn this season - he likes to stay in his stall the day before he runs.

The change in routine has helped boost Crucible's game to its highest level in years, and even a six-length loss to the mighty Bonapaw in the Jan. 12 Colonel Power was a solid effort. Crucible's two works since that race have done nothing to suggest decline. Both have been bullet five-furlong moves, one on Jan. 23 in 1:00.20 and another on Saturday in an exceptional 59.40 seconds. Frank Lovato, aboard for Crucible's last three starts, has a return call.

These occasional forays into allowance company have been a boon to Crucible's win mark, but his last such move, at Keeneland's fall meet, saw him fall to Da Devil, another 7-year-old, who makes his seasonal bow in Friday's race. There are at least two important differences between the Keeneland race and this one. In their last meeting, Crucible and Da Devil raced slightly more than seven furlongs, a distance more to Da Devil's liking and less to Crucible's. And Crucible is running this time over a track he loves, Da Devil over one on which he's never raced.

But take nothing away from Da Devil, who has been managed through a 44-start career by trainer Forrest Kaelin and is less than $114,000 away from earnings of $1 million. Da Devil has won at tracks throughout the Midwest, in sprints and in routes. He shows a series of solid works over this surface and, as a late-running sprinter, should benefit from the long Fair Grounds stretch.

Prospector's Gift has won two in a row here for trainer Neil Howard, but faces horses much more accomplished than those he's recently beaten.

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