03/13/2008 11:00PM

Elliecat maturing all around

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NEW ORLEANS - Elliecat won't have the element of surprise this time when she goes forward in the Fortin Handicap, one of six stakes featured on the closing Saturday's Lagniappe Stakes Day.

Her last race was the Chou Croute Handicap, on Feb. 16, where she wired the field at 75-1, holding on to win by a neck.

As Elliecat has matured on the track, trainer Dallas Keen has seen an increased maturity in the barn. Elliecat has always been notoriously hard to handle, biting grooms and trying to throw riders.

"The safest place to be has been on her back," said Keen. "But she's grown up with time, and we know her better. There are certain things you do with her, and you make sure you do it the same way every time."

The increased maturity in the barn has translated to her works, as she turned in a bullet on Tuesday morning, going five furlongs in 1:02.20 over a sloppy track.

Keen believes Elliecat is a good fit with Lonnie Meche, who rode her to victory in the Chou Croute and knows how to use her tractable speed.

"Lonnie fits her good," said Keen. "She'll do whatever you want her to, but she has to be near the front. She can lay just off the pace, or she can be the speed."

Thinking big with French Beret

French Beret outran his odds of 40-1 when he finished second in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap, and he has trainer Mark Frostad making plans for bigger races.

French Beret was four wide around both turns in the Muniz, but still managed to close to within a length at the wire, finishing second to Proudinsky.

"He got into a little trouble, but he overcame a lot," said Frostad. "He came out of the race in good order."

Frostad indicated he will point French Beret toward the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile on April 11, or the Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs.

With the end of the meet nearing, Frostad soon will be leaving Fair Grounds, sending some of his string to Canada to train for the opening of the Woodbine meet, while taking those who are ready to race to Keeneland and then Churchill Downs.

Statebred stakes take charge

As the Fair Grounds meets winds to its March 23 ending, the track will close with 10 stakes over the last four racing days, including five on Saturday. Of the last 10 stakes, six are exclusively for Louisiana-bred horses, and one is for horses owned by residents of Mississippi.

The richest two races will be the Crescent City Oaks and the Crescent City Derby for 3-year-old Louisiana-breds, to be run on Saturday, each for a purse of $75,000.

In the Oaks, Hisse returns to defend her position atop the Louisiana-bred 3-year-old fillies. She scored in the Sarah Lane's Oates, winning by four lengths as the favorite. The third-place finisher, Runaway From Itall, will return to try and turn the tables.

In the Crescent City Derby, Classy Deelite and Peteadoris will meet again after coming home first and second in the Gentilly Stakes. Classy Deelite wired the field at long odds in that race, and will be looking to repeat that performance.