03/06/2002 12:00AM

Dollar Bill, Connected finally back

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NEW ORLEANS - It wouldn't be a huge stretch to call Fair Grounds's Friday feature the second division of the New Orleans Handicap. Had their winters gone in a slightly different direction, both Dollar Bill and Connected might have run Sunday in the New Orleans Handicap. It turned out neither was ready for that race, and instead they face off Friday in the strongest Fair Grounds allowance of the meet.

"The New Orleans Handicap was in our plan," said David Carroll, Connected's trainer. "But it took him longer to come around. We didn't want to force things."

That same philosophy was espoused all winter by Dollar Bill's trainer, Dallas Stewart, who began breezing Dollar Bill in December. Stewart said all along that he'd let Dollar Bill, not a particular race, dictate his own schedule.

"He's had a lot of good works, so I'm hoping he's got enough under his belt now," Stewart said.

The last time Dollar Bill raced at Fair Grounds he nearly fell down. Favored in last year's Louisiana Derby, Dollar Bill clipped heels and stumbled badly turning for home, and though he recovered to finish fourth, the race was a sign of things to come. Dollar Bill had bad trips in the Kentucky Derby, in which he finished 15th, and in the Preakness, in which he finished fourth.

Dollar Bill was trouble free during his final start of last year, a third-place finish in the Travers Stakes, but shortly after was diagnosed with a bone chip, operated on, and put away for the season.

Dollar Bill has worked steadily for more than two months, stepping up the pace of his exercise in February, when he logged six-furlong breezes in 1:13.40 and 1:13.

"You never know until you start them back, but he acts like he's ready to run," said Stewart.

Robby Albarado rides Dollar Bill - who breaks from post 2 - for the first time Thursday.

Connected got hot last fall, when he scored the biggest win of his career in the Grade 3 Fayette Stakes, beating Broken Vow by a half-length. In his final start of the year he made a strong stretch run in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap and finished a close fourth.

"It doesn't really matter to me who's in this race," Carroll said. "I'm just so happy to have him back in the entries. This is just a start to get him back to the races."

From a handicapping standpoint, both horses are vulnerable coming back from a layoff. The Steve Asmussen-trained Storm Cruiser lacks class, but is the lone speed in Friday's race.

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