11/21/2012 4:06PM

Fair Grounds: Rapidly improving Unlatch tries to take next step in Woodchopper

Coady Photography
Hammers Terror is at his best at the mile distance of the Woodchopper.

NEW ORLEANS – The 3-year-old gelding Unlatch did well when he made his career debut in August, finishing second of eight in an Ellis Park turf-route race. He was even better in September, winning a Kentucky Downs maiden race by more than two lengths, and Unlatch hit an even higher peak in October, when he finished fast to beat 11 first-level allowance foes in a Keeneland turf race.

And with that pattern, Unlatch comes into Friday’s $75,000 Woodchopper Stakes mirroring his trainer’s path through the last three months. Since Aug. 1, Al Stall has won with 29 of 104 starters, a 27-percent strike rate; since Sept. 1, Stall has gone 17-60, a 28-percent clip, and from Oct. 1 through Nov. 21, Stall hit with 16 of 42 starters, a sizzling 38-percent clip.

Considering the way things have been going for both horse and trainer, Unlatch figures prominently – perhaps at bettable odds – in the Woodchopper, a one-mile grass race restricted to 3-year-olds.

Bred and owned by Adele Dilschneider, Unlatch is by Horse Chestnut and out of the mare Detach, making him a half-brother to the solid older horse – and fellow Fair Grounds resident – Apart.

“He’s a big horse with a mind of his own that needed some time, but once he got himself organized, he started coming to hand really nicely,” Stall said Wednesday. “There was a dramatic difference between his first race and his last race.”

In the Keeneland race, where Unlatch was 12-1, he waited patiently in fourth while saving ground on both turns, and when jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. swung Unlatch out at the top of the stretch, he kicked home with a purpose, running his final quarter-mile in less than 23 seconds to post a 1 1/4-length win.

A similar performance will be required to handle 11 foes in the Woodchopper, in which two pairs of horses, Macho Bull and Hero of Order, and Coalport and Gung Ho, race as coupled entries. Hammers Terror finished an even third on the Fair Grounds course last season in the Black Gold Stakes, but has since improved, and is stretching back out to a middle distance after an eight-place finish in the Grade 1 Nearctic, a turf-sprint stakes at Woodbine.

“One mile is his best distance,” said trainer Mike Stidham. “He worked really well here the other day.”

Coalport, part of a Ken and Sarah Ramsey-owned entry with Gung Ho, showed promise at 2, but has raced only three times this year and makes his first start since May.

“He had a little bump in the road is all,” said trainer Wayne Catalano, who expressed confidence that Coalport wouldn’t need a start to shake off rust. “He’s training well. We’re happy with him.”

Aldous Snow’s string of good performances ended last month at Hawthorne, when he finished eighth in the Hawthorne Derby, but that race – stronger from top to bottom than Friday’s – was contested in a driving rainstorm and on a soggy turf course.

Hero of Order, who makes his first start since September, was last seen at Fair Grounds winning the 2012 Louisiana Derby at odds of 109-1. He has lost all six of his starts since then, and probably needs dirt to show his best.