01/22/2008 12:00AM

Denis of Cork may head to Oaklawn

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Three-year-old action is heating up at Fair Grounds, but some of the better horses based in New Orleans may not actually be racing in New Orleans.

Count among that group Denis of Cork, who won on Saturday for the second time in as many career starts, but only barely. An eye-catching winner of his career debut Nov. 24 at Churchill, Denis of Cork won an entry-level allowance race by a nose over the decent Unbridled Vicar, a tight margin of victory for a well-regarded 4-5 shot.

Denis of Cork overcame obstacles to win at all. First, trainer David Carroll had let Denis of Cork come around at his own pace following his debut, and Denis of Cork was making his first start in two months while racing for the first time around two turns. Moreover, Denis of Cork was wide the entire trip, and rallied from behind a ridiculously slow early pace, nearly 50 seconds for the opening half-mile, and did so on a wet track he disliked, according to jockey Calvin Borel.

"Calvin said he was really struggling with the track," Carroll said.

Denis of Cork nevertheless emerged from his win in good condition, said Carroll, who hopes Saturday's start will move Denis of Cork forward into his stakes debut, which is likely to come Feb. 18 at Oaklawn Park in the Southwest Stakes. Carroll said the timing of the Southwest is preferable to that of the Risen Star, which comes up nine days sooner.

Carroll still has a horse for the Feb. 9 Risen Star in Blackberry Road, who has trained forwardly following his closing second-place finish in the Jan. 12 Lecomte Stakes.

Lecomte winner Z Fortune, meanwhile, on Monday had his first workout since the race, going a measured half-mile in 52 seconds.

"We didn't ask for much," said Scott Blasi, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen, who was traveling from the Eclipse Awards in California to New Orleans on Tuesday. "He just kind of went around easy. He came out of the race good."

Z Fortune, unbeaten in three races, may wind up in the Risen Star, but that race is coming up fast for Asmussen's highest-ranked

3-year-old, Pyro.

Pyro, who along with Curlin is scheduled to work Thursday, has posted only two slow breezes coming back from a post-Breeders' Cup freshening. He, too, has the option of taking the Oaklawn route, the one Asmussen used in 2007 with Curlin, who at this time last year was based at Fair Grounds.

Working Tuesday for the first time since his third-place Breeders' Cup Juvenile finish was Kodiak Kowboy. And on Monday, the Asmussen barn showed off still another 3-year-old prospect in Kings Silver Son, who was dogged by wide posts and false paces while finishing second in 4 of 5 starts last year. Kings Silver Son scored a sharp

3 1/2-length win in a one-mile maiden race Monday.

"I do think he lacked a little bit of direction [last year]," Blasi said. "We backed off a little bit, and I think he's really matured. We still have plenty of time with him."

Eight Belles could rival her barnmate

While the Larry Jones-trained 3-year-old Proud Spell successfully went through a major seven-furlong workout Monday morning, Jones on Monday afternoon sent out a 3-year-old filly named Eight Belles who may prove to be at least as good as Proud Spell, the second-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Eight Belles won her maiden in her third start, scoring by 10 lengths on Oct. 30 at Delaware Park, but she ran poorly in her first start at Fair Grounds before turning in an improved second-place finish behind the promising Neil Howard trainee Highest Class on Dec. 23. But that was nothing compared to Monday's race. Always on the bridle but still relaxed for jockey Gabriel Saez, Eight Belles took command of an entry-level allowance race on the far turn, and drew off to win by 15 lengths.

"She must have got scared of something around the quarter pole," Jones joked.

Jones said he had told owner Rick Porter that Eight Belles "was going to run the best race of her career," but said the quality of her win surprised him. Eight Belles was timed in 1:40.40 for one mile and 40 yards, which is about as fast as a 3-year-old filly could possibly run the distance at Fair Grounds.

"She's such a tall, gangly filly," said Jones. "She's getting coordinated, growing into her body. She was just a big baby, but she's still maturing, and hopefully this is a sign of things to come."

Jones termed the Feb. 9 Silverbulletday a "possibility" for Eight Belles, but he has been pointing Proud Spell to that race, and said he "would love to keep Eight Belles and Proud Spell away from each other at this point in their careers."

Jones said he also would consider racing Eight Belles at Oaklawn and bringing her back to New Orleans for the Fair Grounds Oaks in March.

Rain adds uncertainty to feature

Fair Grounds lost four days of turf racing last week, only getting onto the grass course Monday. And with a chance of rain in the forecast this week, turf racing could once again be in jeopardy.

That is one complicating factor in the featured ninth race Thursday, a second-level allowance carded for

5 1/2 furlongs on turf. Another is the field itself, which lacks both compelling form and any sort of a standout.

Surely the most interesting horse in the race is Thumbin' a Ride, who is unbeaten in two career starts, but unraced since June 2 and unproven on grass. Thumbin' a Ride makes her first start for trainer Malcolm Pierce, having raced last year in Maryland for trainer Mike Trombetta.

Champagne Sue won an off-the-turf entry-level allowance race earlier this meet, and looks at least like a speed factor on Thursday, be it on grass or dirt.