02/08/2008 12:00AM

Encaustic could be nice start to pick four

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LOUISVILLE - Those focusing on multi-race gimmick wagers on Saturday's blockbuster card at Fair Grounds may view the Mineshaft Handicap as a race to go with a single, or perhaps use only two horses.

Magna Graduate and Grasshopper would appear the most logical candidates for use in such gimmicks, having established themselves as top-level performers in major stakes. Although they are the most likely winners, contention runs deeper in the seven-horse Mineshaft - with Silver Lord (who is cross-entered in the Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park) Better Than Bonds, and Encaustic also having a shot to win.

With an all-stakes pick-four kicking off with the Mineshaft, the sixth race on the card, I plan to go three deep, using Magna Graduate and Grasshopper, but also throwing longshot Encaustic on my tickets.

With Encaustic (No. 1) sitting at 12-1 on the morning line, I will naturally be hoping he can upset. And when you take a close look at his form, it is apparent that he has an outside chance to do just that.

Unlike Magna Graduate (6) and Grasshopper (2), both of whom are unraced since the fall, he has raced this winter, last competing in a Dec. 26 allowance at Laurel Park, a race in which he finished second in a deceptively fast race.

Racing over a muddy track that produced slow times all afternoon, he took mud in his face on the inside for much of the race, and once angled to the outside for the stretch run, finished well to be 1 1/2 lengths behind next-out winner Coyoteshighestcall. The winner covered seven furlongs in 1:25.30, with Encaustic running a 1:25.55.

Owned at the time by Robert Meyerhoff's Fitzhugh Stable, he was acquired after the race by Ro Parra's Millennium Farms and turned over to trainer Steve Asmussen.

That is a highly positive signal. Remember that just this past summer Millennium Farms, under the guidance of Thorograph's Jerry Brown, purchased Student Council. Coming off an allowance defeat, he went on to win the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at 23-1 for Millennium Farms and would later score in the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

Encaustic would not appear to have the same potential as Student Council, but his acquisition by sharp connections suggests he is more talented than his Laurel Park past performance lines would seem to reflect.

He is a good value win play, and a horse to throw into the pick fours with Magna Graduate and Grasshopper.

Fair Grounds BC: Not a place to single

Similarly, I will go three-deep in this race, using 2004 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now (5), three-time graded winner Daytona (8), and the red-hot local horse Inca King (10).

Better Talk Now is the most accomplished horse in the field, but unraced since a fourth-place finish in the Oct. 27 BC Turf, I find it difficult to single him. I am expecting him to return ready, but Daytona and Inca King are at the top of their games and could potentially have a fitness edge.

Silverbulletday: Proud Spell quite capable

Indian Blessing seemingly has everything in her favor. Unbeaten in four starts, she has the benefit of a start this year, a win in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez on Jan. 13.

What she is unlikely to offer, however, is a hint of value. I imagine the public will bet her down from her 4-5 morning line price, probably to 2-5 or so.

This may create value on the comebacking Proud Spell, who finished second to her in the BC Juvenile Fillies. Although no match for Indian Blessing that day, sloppy conditions at Monmouth Park may have worked more to the benefit of Indian Blessing than Proud Spell.

With sunshine forecast in New Orleans on Saturday, the track should be fast, and Proud Spell, who has trained at Fair Grounds all winter, may have a better chance.

I will go two deep, using Proud Spell (5) and Indian Blessing (7), and also bet Proud Spell to win if she stays at or above her morning line price of 7-2.

Risen Star: Two have shot to beat Pyro

Pyro (8), runner-up in the Champagne and BC Juvenile behind War Pass, is the class of the race and must be included on all pick four tickets.

This being a comeback race, however, it is difficult to single him. He faces a deep, talented field - arguably the best Derby prep to this point in the year, in terms of both depth and quality.

Z Fortune (11), who pushed his record to 3 for 3 with a win in the Jan. 12 Lecomte, will also be on my pick four tickets, along with Visionaire (3), a promising Florida invader who has won two straight.

* Pick four ticket: With this all stakes pick-four having a 50-cent minimum, a number of tickets can be played for a limited cost. A 50-cent pick four ticket of 1,6,2 with 5,8,10 with 5,7 with 8,11,3 costs $27.