03/04/2004 12:00AM

Dirt the key to Borrego's popularity

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NEW ORLEANS - Nobody really wanted Borrego when he was a yearling and a 2-year-old in training. Now, they can't have him.

Borrego flew Wednesday from trainer Beau Greely's base at Hollywood Park to Fair Grounds, where he has taken up residence to prepare for Sunday's $600,000 Louisiana Derby. As of Thursday, a field of 11 was expected for the race. Fire Slam and Gradepoint are the top locally based horses, while Shaniko and Pollard's Vision, both trained by Todd Pletcher, and Stolen Time, a Bill Mott-trained colt, were en route from Florida on Thursday. Wimbledon, a Bob Baffert-trained maiden winner, shipped in with Borrego.

A handsome chestnut, Borrego came quickly to the front of his stall Thursday morning, his chestnut coat flecked with blotches of white. His coat's shine and the ample flesh on Borrego's long frame suggested the colt has shipped well and is coming up to Sunday's race with a good chance. In his most recent start, just the second dirt race of Borrego's career, he finished second to the Bobby Frankel-trained Master David in the Sham Stakes. Action This Day, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, finished fourth in the race.

"He's just starting to develop now," said trainer Beau Greeley.

Greely was part of a partnership that bred Borrego, and he is a co-owner. The idea was to sell the colt at auction, but the market wasn't ready for Borrego. Greely said he bought Borrego back for $20,000 at a yearling auction, and bought him back again for $75,000 at a 2-year-old-in-training sale.

"I wasn't going to give him away," Greely said. "I probably would have let him go for $80,000. I figured we might as well get him back and race him."

Borrego began his career on turf, but he is by El Prado, whose progeny typically handle grass or the main track, and after three starts, Greely switched the colt to dirt. He won a Santa Anita allowance race in his first try before his good second in the Sham.

"I thought he had every right to be a decent dirt horse," said Greely. "I thought if we were going to find out about dirt, now was the time."

Now, Greely is turning down offers for Borrego, who would put himself firmly on the Kentucky Derby trail with a strong showing this weekend.

"You'd rather win the Derby than go to heaven, right?" Greely said.

Lady Tak and Cuvee work

Lady Tak had her fastest workout of 2004, and Cuvee had his first work of the year earlier this week at Fair Grounds. Both horses worked Monday for trainer Steve Asmussen, with Lady Tak timed in 1:01.40 for five furlongs, and Cuvee breezing a half-mile in 53.40 seconds, barely fast enough to make the work tab.

Thursday, Asmussen said that Lady Tak was likely to make her season debut in the Vinery Madison Stakes on April 13 at Keenland. Cuvee is not that far along, and plans for his comeback remain fluid, Asmussen said. Both horses are coming off poor performances in Breeders' Cup races, but were near the top of their respective divisions last season.

Asmussen said Lady Tak had worked more quickly than he preferred. "I'm going to slow her down next week," he said.

It's not just his stakes forces that Asmussen is marshaling. On Monday, he claimed six horses at Fair Grounds, four of them for himself. Asmussen, who is racing on four fronts at the moment, led the nation's trainers in wins, with 108 through Monday. Scott Lake was second with 55 victories.

Don't sell Bending Strings short

The lure of a Grade 2 placing and a $300,000 purse has brought Bending Strings to Fair Grounds for Saturday's Oaks. Bending Strings is based with trainer Jerry Hollendorfer in northern California, and horses rarely ship from there to New Orleans. The simple fact Hollendorfer has made the trip suggests Bending Strings may have a better chance than many bettors will accord her.

Bending Strings has started five times, winning twice and finishing second in two other starts, but her lone poor performance came in front of the biggest audience-a distant fourth Jan. 19 in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez at Santa Anita.

Bending Strings might be a better horse than that. She might also be better than her close second-place finish to colts in the Feb. 8 Golden State Mile.

"We're going to run her with blinkers off this time," Hollendorfer said. "She was looking at the grandstand in her last race. Other than that, she's always done exactly what the rider has asked of her."

Bending Strings is by American Chance, known more as a sire of sprinters and milers than true route horses. But Hollendorfer trains another American Chance, Eye of the Tiger, who has done well at longer distances.

"I don't like to say a sire can only do one thing," he said. "Eye of the Tiger has done well in routes, and ran in the Kentucky Derby."

The local jockey Eddie Martin has picked up the mount on Bending Strings.