03/12/2004 1:00AM

Fire Slam okay after tough race; Lexington next


NEW ORLEANS - Fire Slam returned to the racetrack Friday, jogging two miles in his first exercise since a fifth-place finish Sunday in the Louisiana Derby. Gradually, Fire Slam is coming back around after a taxing race last weekend, and trainer David Carroll is beginning to plot Fire Slam's next move.

The likely spot, Carroll said Friday, is the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes on April 17 at Keeneland. Also under consideration is the April 3 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, but that race is at nine furlongs, and Carroll would prefer to keep Fire Slam at 1 1/16 miles right now.

It is difficult to praise a horse for a fifth-place finish, but Fire Slam's Louisiana Derby effort was strong. Fire Slam crossed over from an outside post, but once there, found himself caught in a torrid speed duel between Indian War Dance and Nightlifeatbig-blue: the race's half-mile split, 45.27 seconds, was faster than many sprint races are run at Fair Grounds. The two other speed horses finished more than 30 lengths behind the winner, Wimbledon, but Fire Slam battled on.

The effort took a toll. "He's not 100 percent yet, but he's getting there," Carroll said. "He was knocked out from the race, he really was. I'm proud of the way the horse ran."

Carroll expressed no concerns Wednesday about Fire Slam's right hind hoof. Fire Slam battled a quarter crack for much of the winter, but the hoof was far less of a factor Sunday than the pace.

Gradepoint, Breakaway move on

Meanwhile, 200 yards east of Carroll's barn, trainer Neil Howard is taking a measured approach to his pair of Louisiana Derby runners. Breakaway's closing fourth-place finish might have earned him a slot in the Wood Memorial, while Gradepoint, a disappointing eighth, could resurface in one of several different spots, including a turf race. Gradepoint, the Risen Star Stakes winner, and Breakaway were narrow favorites in the derby.

Howard said both horses appeared well this week, though that leaves Howard without an explanation for Gradepoint's poor performance. Howard speculated that the three-week break between the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby might have been too short for Gradepoint, who ran the hardest race of his life in the Risen Star.

"That could've had something to do with it," Howard said.

There are many options for Gradepoint now, including the Forerunner Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile grass race April 15 at Keeneland, though Howard emphasized that Gradepoint still could run in more traditional Kentucky Derby preps.

"One race is too soon to give up on him," Howard said.

Saint Liam heads to Oaklawn

Saint Liam, who nearly upset the New Orleans Handicap in his last start, losing by a head to Peace Rules, left Fair Grounds on Thursday for Oaklawn Park, where he will start April 3 in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap.

This is the same pattern trainer Richard Dutrow followed before the New Orleans Handicap. Dutrow sent Saint Liam here about a month in advance, and Saint Liam had breezed strongly over the surface coming up to the race

"I didn't want to send him back to New York and then ship him back out for the race," Dutrow said. "He came out of the last race the way you'd like to see a horse come out of a race."

The Saint Liam loss to Peace Rules was one of the best New Orleans Handicaps ever. Peace Rules is top class on his day and clearly ran his race, making Saint Liam look like a major player in the older-horse division. Dutrow was elated with Saint Liam's performance, but said he's not looking ahead.

"We're just going to have to take it one day and one week at a time with him," Dutrow said.

Badge of Silver on target for Carter

Badge of Silver breezed six furlongs here Thursday in 1:15.40 and remains on target for the Carter Handicap on April 10 at Aqueduct. Trainer Ronny Werner is extremely pleased with Badge of Silver's recent training, and said the Thursday breeze was excellent.

"He almost knocked somebody over coming off the track," Werner said. "You should have seen him."

The Carter is shaping up as an excellent race, with Congaree and Strong Hope also pointing for it.