11/18/2005 12:00AM

Familiar faces prep for Champions Day

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - The featured race on the second day of the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs is, appropriately enough, for Louisiana-breds. But the Sarah Lane's Oates Handicap is not the best race on the Sunday card.

That distinction goes to race 7, a high-end turf allowance for statebreds at about 1 1/16 miles. The course, rested for more than six weeks since the end of the Louisiana Downs meet, is sparkling. And so is this field.

The race is a prep for Louisiana Champions Day, which comes up Dec. 10, and there are horses here that figure to go not just into the Champions Day Turf, but also the Champions Day Classic. Chief among those is Witt Ante, who won the Champions Day Classic last year at Fair Grounds, and has won 10 of 27 career starts while banking more than $566,000. This will be Witt Ante's third straight turf race, but he has won just once on grass, and is a superior horse on the main track.

The old man in the field also happens to be the best turf horse in the race - Mr. Sulu. Mr. Sulu will turn 8 in six weeks, but Sunday, his key number is one. That is, one scratch is needed to get Mr. Sulu off the also-eligible list and into the race. Either way, his goal is the same as he has every year, the Champions Day Turf. If he gets there, it will mark the fifth straight season that Mr. Sulu has raced on Champions Day.

"We're very conservative about running this horse, and I think that's added to his longevity," said Josie Carroll, who trains Mr. Sulu and owns him in partnership with his breeder, A.L. McMurray.

"We run him in the spring at Woodbine, then freshen him up and bring him back in the fall," said Carroll, who is based most of the year in Canada. "Sometimes we run him at Woodbine, but there wasn't a race for him here this fall, so we just sent him down."

Mr. Sulu has won 8 of 25 starts on grass. A couple thousand dollars more, and Mr. Sulu will be a half-millionaire, not bad for a Louisiana-bred son of the $1,000 stallion Rail. It hasn't all been easy, either, since Mr. Sulu has his quirks.

"He still wears his earplugs, goes out late in the morning when there's no one around," Carroll said. "He never changes."

McKella tops field of turf fillies

The $50,000 Sarah Lanes Oates, at about one mile on turf, is for 2-year-old Louisiana-bred fillies. It drew a field of 11, including a coupled entry from trainer Don Cormier.

The likely favorite is McKella, who debuted in a two-turn turf race Sept. 1 and beat open company. Back in the $50,000 Lady Luck five weeks later, McKella finished sixth of 12, not bad for an open stakes try, especially since trainer Troy Young said he believes his filly fell too far behind the pacesetters.

"I think she had a little too much to do," Young said. Jockey Gerard Melancon, said Young, told him after a race that when McKella faced Louisiana-breds, "they're not going to beat her."

This is that day, and McKella, an Autocracy filly owned by Valene Farms, has done well since last she raced.

"She's doing pretty good right now, so I like my chance," said Young.

Others to consider are first-time turf runner Leestown Light, who drew poorly on the outside but may like grass, and the maiden Bad Girls Have Fun, who showed spark Sept. 18 in her turf debut.

Asmussen brings a bunch

It seemed like every other horse that passed by during morning training Thursday was wearing trainer Steve Asmussen's saddle towel. Indeed, Asmussen entered five horses for Saturday's opening day, and said he planned to be busy here during the opening phase of this meet.

"We're going to try to be," he said.

Asmussen has at least tied for leading trainer at the last five Fair Grounds meets, and while he will have 50 horses here at Louisiana Downs this year, his operation will have a different flavor this year.

"Louisiana Downs isn't the Fair Grounds," he said. "The style of race, the horses that will be effective, that kind of thing."

Asmussen is sending 34 horses to Palm Meadows, and said his chief assistant, Scott Blasi, will oversee that string. The Florida division will be comprised in great part by horses that were stabled this fall at Churchill: In other words, the first-stringers. Also in the winter mix are Oaklawn Park, where Asmussen has 35 stalls, and Evangeline Downs, where the relocated Delta Downs meet begins Dec. 1.

Asmussen said that his talented young sprinter Gaff is unlikely to contest the Thanksgiving Handicap here on Thursday. Gaff may wind up in the Malibu Stakes in Southern California, while the Louisiana-bred Zarb's Dahar heads the possible starters in the Thanksgiving Handicap.