02/21/2003 1:00AM

'General' requires a fast pace


NEW ORLEANS - Early Friday morning Mountain General was putting the finishing touches on his preparations for Sunday's Taylor's Special Handicap. Thunder rumbled ominously, and then the skies opened. Mountain General tried to do what any sensible animal does in a heavy storm - head for cover.

"We got stuck out on the racetrack in the rain with him," said trainer Steve Asmussen. "I don't like his chances in a downpour. He didn't want to go. It wasn't pretty."

Chances are, conditions will be significantly better when Mountain General races in the $75,000 Taylor's Special, the fourth of five six-furlong sprint stakes at the Fair Grounds meet. It rained so much here Friday that racing was canceled, but Sunday's forecast is for sunny skies and warm temperatures. Not many stakes horses will be out to enjoy the weather. Only six were entered, and the Glen Warren-owned entry of Gracie's Dancer and G.W.'s Deputy leaves only five betting interests.

Mountain General seems to be headed back toward the sort of performance that won the Thanksgiving Day Handicap here late last year. On that day, Mountain General got a sizzling pace to run at and flew through the stretch, winning by more than six lengths while breaking the track record for six furlongs. His Gaudin Handicap three weeks later was dull by comparison, and Mountain General finished fourth, but he turned things around in the Jan. 12 Colonel Power, where he was second, beaten less than a length.

"I think he's doing excellent," said Asmussen, who trains Mountain General for his father, Keith. "He'll run his usual consistent race."

Mountain General needs a fast pace to percolate for his best race, and when Aloha Bold was taken out of consideration for the stakes late this week, the Taylor's Special lost one of its pace players. There still are two, Gracie's Dancer and Kazoo, and when left alone on the lead in the Gaudin, Kazoo scored an easy two-length win. Kazoo wasn't quite as sharp in the Colonel Power, where he finished three lengths behind Mountain General, but he has a reasonable chance Sunday.

So does Speed Hunter, who ships in from Payson Park in south Florida for trainer Elliott Walden. Speed Hunter tired to eighth in his last start, the Hal's Hope, but that was a route race, and Speed Hunter has won his last three sprint races.

G.W.'s Deputy has won three straight races over lesser opposition, while Doctor Mike is a talented statebred horse who, like Mountain General, needs a fast pace to set up his late run.

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