01/05/2006 12:00AM

Like the division, race is wide open

West Virginia, winning the Grade 3 Iselin in August at Monmouth Park, is the 3-1 morning-line favorite in Saturday's Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.

BOSSIER CITY, La. - Saturday's Grade 2 did not draw the kind of big guns it usually does, when it is run in its typical March spot on the calendar at Fair Grounds, but several horses in the field have the potential to establish themselves as players in this year's up-for-grabs handicap division.

Alumni Hall, Brass Hat, and West Virginia are chief among that group. Also with a chance on Saturday is Mr. Trieste, who has won his last eight starts, all in New Mexico, and who will be facing the biggest test of his career.

Alumni Hall will vie for favoritism in the $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, the richest race of the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs. A 7-year-old horse, Alumni Hall made his first start just two seasons ago, and last year he put together a strong campaign in which he won three stakes, including two Grade 3 races at Keeneland - the Ben Ali on April 28 and the Fayette on Oct. 29. Both were run over 1 1/8 miles, the same distance as the New Orleans Handicap.

Alumni Hall, who has won 9 of his 20 starts, enters the New Orleans off a rare off-the-board finish, an eighth-place performance in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 25.

"He just had a bad day, and he hasn't had too many of them," said Neil Howard, who trains Alumni Hall. "He's been doing well. He's been training well over here."

Alumni Hall will ship in from Oaklawn. He has tactical speed and could get a stalking trip under Robby Albarado.

"He usually gets good position," said Howard. "He's been on the lead at times, but he can lay a little close, in a good stalking position."

Brass Hat should also race within striking distance. A 5-year-old, he won a pair of Grade 2 races at 3, the Ohio and Indiana derbies, but missed most of last year with a condylar fracture. He comes into Saturday's race off a 2 1/2-length win in the $50,000 Prairie Bayou at 1 1/8 miles at Turfway Park on Dec. 17.

"I was really pleased with his last race," said Buff Bradley, who trains Brass Hat. "He was running against some tough old class horses that had been around Turfway and had been running there and knew how to win. We knew it was going to be a tough race, just his second race after over a year layoff. I think that race had to help him a ton."

Brass Hat is versatile, and Bradley said he believes Brass Hat will have to keep the quick Mr. Trieste "in his sights" on Saturday. Willie Martinez will ride Brass Hat.

West Virginia, winner of the Grade 3 Iselin at Monmouth Park in August, invades for trainer Todd Pletcher and has been installed as the 3-1 morning line favorite. In his last two starts, West Virginia has finished second by a neck in a pair of Grade 3 stakes at Aqueduct. He will add blinkers on Saturday and will be ridden by Florida-based rider Eddie Castro.

Mr. Trieste's last four wins have come in stakes. Unlike in some of his recent races, he will not be spotting his opponents much weight in the New Orleans as the 117-pound co-highweight with Brass Hat. Mr. Trieste is a threat to wire the field in his graded-stakes debut Saturday.

Others in the field are Dixie Meister, who is coming off a win in the $100,000 Star of Texas Stakes at Sam Houston, and the dangerous old-timers M B Sea and Silver Axe. Louisiana-bred stakes winner Sanctuary's Omooni completes the lineup.