03/18/2004 12:00AM

Decision comes down to David's duo

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NEW ORLEANS - About a month ago, it looked like trainer Sam David would have a horse for the Gentilly Handicap. Actually, David has two, and the unexpected second horse, Mr. Sam, might be the better of them.

Mr. Sam easily won the prep race for the Gentilly, beating David's other hopeful, Old Lee, by four lengths. The two stablemates and nine others were entered Thursday in the $100,000 Gentilly, a one-mile grass race for Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds.

Old Lee showed turf ability six months ago, finishing second in an open grass maiden race at Louisiana Downs before winning one in his next start. Between turf starts, Old Lee finished third in the Crescent City Derby here and won the $125,000 Louisiana Premier Night Prince at Delta Downs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sam's career was meandering through allowance and conditioned claiming races, though he broke through with a decent mud victory here in late February. Still, if Mr. Sam and Old Lee had not been coupled in the Gentilly prep, Old Lee would have been the much shorter price. In that prep, Corey Lanerie made a bold bid for the lead on Mr. Sam at the half-mile pole. Mr. Sam took over and ran away to a four-length win.

"I was surprised," David said. "I didn't know he could run with those horses like that."

Mr. Sam's pedigree doesn't tilt much toward turf, but he clearly moved forward on the surface and has a good chance to repeat his last performance. As David points out, though, Old Lee had a difficult trip in his last start and could improve. And this time, bettors must make a call, since the two race uncoupled in the Gentilly.

Others have a chance. Arcus had a strange trip when he lost badly in the allowance prep, but has beaten this type of horse before and handles turf. Katzanova finished third behind Mr. Sam and Old Lee in his turf debut, and Runs With Scissors, an easy maiden winner in his last start, makes his grass debut.

Willard Straight looks for good run in Muniz

Todd Pletcher's dirt horses at Gulfstream Park have been running wild. Sunday, in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap at Fair Grounds, Pletcher will try to make a dent in the older turf division.

Willard Straight, trained by Pletcher, is one of two or three Florida-based horses scheduled to ship to Fair Grounds on Friday for the Muniz. Silver Tree, trained by Bill Mott, is also coming, and Political Attack is on the fence.

Willard Straight has made nine starts and won five, showing plenty of ability, but his two graded stakes races have produced a seventh-place finish and an 11th. In all fairness, when Willard Straight finished 11th he was beaten 2 1/2 lengths in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, and Pletcher says he felt Willard Straight turned in a decent effort.

"I actually thought he ran pretty well," Pletcher said. "It was a totally paceless race. It was twilight, and John Velazqez said he was jumping shadows on the course."

Willard Straight also had an excuse for his loss late last spring in the Grade 3 Jefferson Cup at Churchill Downs, since he came out of the race with a ligament injury that sidelined him for four months. But besides those two losses, and a distant fourth at The Meadowlands, Willard Straight has done little wrong. He made his 4-year-old debut Feb. 20 at Gulfstream, scoring an easy win in a fourth-level allowance race.

"He ran quite well after a layoff," Pletcher said. "It's an ambitious spot, but he's been training so well we thought we'd give him a shot. He's a one-run kind of horse. He'll make his run - it's just a matter of if he's good enough."