11/24/2010 4:19PM

Desert Wheat shooting for Mr. Sulu three-peat

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NEW ORLEANS – Desert Wheat has been around the block a time or two. How do we know? Well, the race in which he starts on Friday at Fair Grounds, the Mr. Sulu Stakes, is named for a horse against whom Desert Wheat used to compete.

Desert Wheat and Mr. Sulu raced against each other back in 2006, when 7-year-old Desert Wheat was a mere babe in arms. And Desert Wheat has, in a way, paid tribute to his former rival by winning the $60,000 Mr. Sulu, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for Louisiana-breds, in both 2008 and 2009. A three-peat seems well within range, with Desert Wheat the 9-5 morning-line favorite to capture the 2010 edition.

Trained by Bill Mott for a partnership, Desert Wheat won the Mr. Sulu by almost three lengths last season before annexing the Louisiana Champions Day Turf by an even wider margin, asserting his position atop the older male Louisiana-bred turf ranks. It’s a spot Desert Wheat probably hasn’t lost, either. Mott brought him back from a layoff of almost 10 months in an open Keeneland turf allowance race on Oct. 13, and Desert Wheat held his own, finishing a mildly closing third in what looks like a perfect prep for an attempt at another Mr. Sulu-Champions Day double. Corey Lanerie, who rode Desert Wheat to his stakes wins here last meet, has the call, and Desert Wheat has three main-track works since shipping in to New Orleans.

There’s a chance rain could move the Mr. Sulu to the main track, and that would negate Desert Wheat’s superiority. Desert Wheat can handle the main track, and usually stays in off-the-turf races, but horses like Snug – who vanquished the mighty Star Guitar last out at Delta – and Chief Jay merit more attention with a rain-off.

New track superintendent off to good start

Last winter in New Orleans, it was difficult to find a horseman with a kind word for the dirt racing surface at Fair Grounds. Quite a bit of the surface seemed to be washing away in heavy rain, and even on dry days, horsemen could look down the backstretch and see undulations in the track.

But so far this year, one hears nothing but praise for the Fair Grounds main track.

“It’s been super,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, echoing the opinion of anyone asked about the dirt track this week. “It doesn’t have the little waves in it any more. It’s been really good, really consistent. This guy has done a good job with it.”

This guy is Pedro Zavala, who was promoted from within the Fair Grounds staff of track-maintenance workers, and appears to have developed a strong relationship with the local loam. Zavala is the latest in a revolving door of track-maintenance supervisors here, and stability in the position could go a long way to regaining the comfort level horse-people used to have with the much-lauded Fair Grounds surface.

“He’s only 26, but he’s been doing this for a long time,” said Fair Grounds general manger Eric Halstrom. “We did interview a couple people for the job, but we concluded that the guy who knew things best was already here.”

While the main track feels good to those riding over it, the Fair Grounds turf looks as good as it ever has. A new irrigation system was completed in July, and the turf, lush and with good coverage, glows in an otherwise drab landscape.

Elite turf sprinters stabled locally

Many Breeders’ Cup horses from the Nov. 5 and 6 races at Churchill Downs have dispersed to both coasts, while others have gone into retirement, but the one-two finishers in the BC Turf Sprint will spend the winter – or a good part of it – right here at Fair Grounds.

Turf Sprint winner Chamberlain Bridge is merely walking trainer Calhoun’s shed row right now, and he’ll continue to do so for the next three or four weeks, Calhoun said. The Colonel Power Stakes here on Feb. 19 is a possible goal, but Chamberlain Bridge’s connections must consider the 2011 big picture for the horse before making concise plans.

“We have to decide whether to take the same course to the Breeders’ Cup as this year or go to Dubai,” Calhoun said, referring to the $1  million Al Quoz Sprint, a turf race that has been shortened to about five furlongs from six for the 2011 edition.

The Al Quoz Sprint also is under consideration for Central City, who set the pace and held well for second behind Chamberlain Bridge at Churchill. Central City will ship from Kentucky sometime next week, trainer Ronny Werner said, and is likely to start here Dec. 16 in the Bonapaw Stakes. The Bonapaw is worth just $60,000, compared to the $1 million purse for which Central City just raced, but Werner wants to push forward right now.

“He’d been on the shelf, so I’m not going to stop now,” said Werner. “I wanted to run the next day after the Breeders’ Cup. He was breathing fire.”