11/29/2002 1:00AM

'General' may be winter sprint star


NEW ORLEANS - There are few places better than Fair Grounds to have a hot sprinter, and few sprinters will ever run faster than Mountain General did when winning the Thanksgiving Day Handicap here on opening day. Mountain General, an improving 4-year-old gelding, crushed six rivals in the Thanksgiving Day, and his six-furlong time of 1:08.03 shattered the track record previously held by Hallowed Dreams.

"He ran incredible," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "I hope it's indicative of what's to come, but maybe he ran too good from a handicapping standpoint. He might not be as good next time. He's been one outstanding race, then one good race."

Mountain General, who is owned by Asmussen's father, Keith, now has four more sprint stakes to look forward to at this meet. The Thanksgiving Day brought out the best sprinters on the grounds now, though Bonapaw figures to show up at some point this winter. There's another stakes for Mountain General in just three weeks - the $75,000 Gaudin - and though Asmussen said Mountain General would point to that spot he worries that Thursday's effort might take its toll.

"To wheel back on the 22nd is going to be challenging for a little horse like him," Asmussen said. "That was his day, and obviously the water's going to get deeper from here."

Mountain General was one of three Asmussen-trained opening day winners as he jumped out to a one-win lead over Tom Amoss in the race for leading trainer. Amoss won the day's first two races but was shut out in five other starts.

"We got done what we wanted to get done, which was winning the Thanksgiving Day," Asmussen said, "and we got lucky enough to win a couple more."

Fair Grounds also had a fairly good opening day, as a crowd of 7,466 came to the races on a sunny but chilly afternoon. Overall business was slightly up from last year, according to Bryan Krantz, Fair Grounds president and general manager.

"If the whole meet ends like that, I think it'll be a keeper," Krantz said.

Crucible racing into shape

Meanwhile, reports of Crucible's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Last of five on Oct. 24 at Keeneland when he returned from a long layoff, Crucible finished next to last in the Thanksgiving Day, beating only Brother Love by a neck. But according to trainer Mark Frostad, Crucible, now 7, merely lacks fitness, not a desire to race.

"Boy, he got big as a house this summer," Frostad said Friday morning. "They had to try three girths on him to saddle him yesterday. They were down to the biggest one they had, but luckily that one went around him."

It has been difficult for the Frostad barn to take Crucible's excess weight off because the gelding is notoriously temperamental during morning training hours. "I guess he'll just have to race into shape," said Frostad.

Old Money worth following

With a convincing grass win in an allowance field on Thursday, Old Money should be prominent in filly and mare turf stakes later this meet. Always on the pace under jockey Frank Lovato, Old Money opened a clear lead at the top of the stretch and went on to a 1 1/2-length victory over Euryanthe.

Old Money, who is owned by Cobra Farm, made her first start for trainer Mike Stidham. Bred in Australia, she shipped to the U.S. after winning an Australian Group 1 in December of 2000, but she didn't race again until January of this year. Before being transferred to Stidham's barn in November, Old Money had raced exclusively in California, tackling some of the best grass mares in the country.

"Bottom line is I think she's a good filly, but she's been running against freaks," Stidham said. "The idea was to get her on a little easier circuit."

Tigress Woods a natural on green

Entries closed late again on Friday here, and there are several short fields on a Sunday card headlined by an entry-level turf allowance for fillies. The feature is at 1 1/16 miles, and if the Mike Stidham barn has Tigress Woods ready to fire after a lengthy layoff, she should win in a mediocre field.

Tigress Woods hasn't raced since she won a maiden race over a route of ground on dirt here in February. Since she's by A.P. Indy and out of a Woodman mare, the surface switch shouldn't bother her, and Stidham is proven with long layoff horses.

Contenders with more recent form include Adorable Audrey, Dancing With Me, and Azalean.