01/28/2004 1:00AM

Flager should pick 'em off late

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NEW ORLEANS - Only six horses were entered in Friday's featured ninth race at Fair Grounds, but that may be enough for Flager. Flager's best races come when she is anchored behind the pace and makes one late run. The strategy requires legitimate front-runners, and despite the short field, there might be enough pace in this spot to set the table for .

It helps that she might be the most talented horse in this short field, though Due to Win Again cannot be ranked far behind. The pair finished a head apart in the Dec. 26 Furl Sail Handicap, won by Bedanken, with Flager second and Due to Win Again third. Flager came from far back with a powerful rally, but Due to Win Again ran a tremendous race, pressing fast fractions from post 12 and running on after all the other speed horses were spent.

The others entered in Friday's feature, a high-end allowance at about 7 1/2 furlongs on turf, are , Bonay, Decencia, and Academic Angel. Academic Angel is the other obvious contender. She was a close fifth behind Flager and Due to Win Again in a Dec. 4 allowance race here, and had won minor stakes in her two previous starts.

The key for Flager, however, could be Bonay, the true front-runner of the bunch. On paper, Bonay appears overmatched, though Merrill Scherer trains her, and Scherer has been on an absolute tear the last month. If Bonay sets legitimate fractions, helped along by Academic Angel, Pembroke Palace, and Due to Win Again, Flager should run past all of them in deep stretch. But if the leaders dawdle, Due to Win Again, likely to get first run, could have an edge.

In fact, Flager and Due to Win Again are in the midst of a Fair Grounds rivalry. On Dec. 4, Flager kicked into gear in the final sixteenth of a mile, rallying for a neck win over Due to Win Again, and the difference between them in the Furl Sail was even smaller. But the guess here is that Due to Win Again is due to regress after three peak races.

Flager, meanwhile, has made only eight starts since being imported from Argentina. She won her North American debut by 10 lengths, but struggled to find herself last summer. Trainer Bobby Barnett has kept her moving forward, and in Shane Sellers, she has found an understanding partner. Sellers has ridden Flager three times, getting two wins and a second.