01/08/2010 1:00AM

Desert Wheat hitting his stride at 7


Desert Wheat has won 10 times and finished second 11 other times while making 48 career starts. He has earned purse money totaling $668,001, and - for whatever it is worth - is the reigning king of Louisiana-bred turf horses. But until Dec. 19, Desert Wheat had never won two races in a row. Is it possible that at age 7 Desert Wheat is better than ever?

That is a question Fair Grounds horseplayers will be asked to answer if they care to wager on the featured Dixie Poker Ace, the featured event on an 11-race Saturday program in New Orleans, where the theme of the week is "goose down." As in, get you some, and wrap up in it. Low temps are dipping into the 20s on a nightly basis this week.

Desert Wheat has conquered wet turf and dry, has even won on dirt, so cold should not stop him. But what of this late-in-life win streak? Surely it's more than mere coincidence that until late 2009, when he went back-to-back in the Nov. 14 Mr. Sulu and the Dec. 19 Louisiana Champions Day Turf, Desert Wheat never had strung together as many as two straight victories. But watching him batter seven rivals in a four-length win last month, one did not get the idea one was watching a horse on the verge of regressing.

Moreover, Desert Wheat, who has called the Bill Mott shed row home since the summer of 2006, basically is meeting the same bunch of horses Saturday that he has recently been beating up: Five of the other eight in the $60,000 Dixie Poker Ace also raced in the Champions Day Turf. The new players are Ide Like a Double, who would like a move to the main track; Willist, who hasn't won a turf race since at least 2008; and recent Louisiana-bred allowance-race winner Smoothcideup.

Morris Nicks-trained Smoothcideup is at least mildly interesting, if not as a Desert Wheat upsetter, then as a Desert Wheat exacta partner. At 4, he is younger than any of the other Dixie Poker Ace entrants, and Smoothcideup has raced only seven times on turf. And while Smoothcideup's blowout grass win Dec. 20 came over suspect competition on a wet course, his form shows positive signs reaching back to last summer, and he posted a smart-looking half-mile work Jan. 4 for trainer Morris Nicks.

Even so, the Dixie Poker Ace does not feel like the moment to desert the Desert Wheat bandwagon, odds-on favorite or not.