02/15/2004 1:00AM

Gradepoint rallies to take Risen Star

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Lou Hodges, Jr.
Gradepoint edges away from Mr. Jester late to win the Grade 3, $150,000 Risen Star Stakes by a half-length at Fair Grounds on Sunday.

NEW ORLEANS - Race by race, Gradepoint is working his way into the Kentucky Derby picture. Sunday, in his fourth race and first stakes start, Gradepoint won the at Fair Grounds, beating Mr. Jester by a half-length.

Gradepoint was the second choice and paid $5.80 to win, and few could have been surprised at his victory - Neil Howard trains Gradepoint. On Saturday, Shadow Cast won the Grade 2 Silvebulletday Stakes here for Howard, and horses he trained won the New Orleans Handicap the last two seasons.

Gradepoint's development is pure Howard. Gradepoint is by A.P. Indy, out of a high-level grass mare, Class Kris. He is a strapping colt, and lacks speed, but had won two straight starts going into the Grade 3, $150,000 Risen Star. In both wins, Gradepoint raced far behind a fast early pace, running past tired, overmatched horses in the stretch.

His Risen Star was vastly better. Shiloh Bound was scratched from the race after coming up lame, probably because of a bruised hoof, Sunday morning. His absence left a pace void, and Nightlifeatbiglue, with just a maiden win, ran alone on the lead through a quarter-mile in 24.45 seconds and a half in 48.37. Gradepoint took up his usual spot behind the field, but though he trailed by about 10 lengths on the backstretch, Gradepoint had gotten into the race more quickly this time.

"He was a little more into it today," said jockey Robby Albarado, who won five races Sunday. "I felt it in the post parade."

Gradepoint started moving up on the far turn, as did Mr. Jester, who was in tight on the fence twice during the race. Polish Rifle collared Nightlifeatbigblue first, getting the lead in upper stretch as Mr. Jester rallied four paths wide and Albarado steered out for a hole about three paths off the rail. Gradepoint ground his way between horses, edging clear from Mr. Jester only in the final yards.

"He wanted to win today," Albarado said. "He wanted to get past those horses."

Gradepoint was clocked in 1:45.36 for one and one-sixteenth miles over a fast track producing moderate times. Nightlifeatbigblue came back and finished third, followed by Polish Rifle, Oneverycoolcat, and Assault Commander.

"These A.P. Indys, the more time you can give them, the better," Howard said. "He's a little in the awkward stages yet."

But Gradepoint is going the right direction, and Howard said the colt is likely to come back in the Louisiana Derby.

Mr. Jester is headed back to Oaklawn Park, and his trainer, Steve Wren, was pleased with his colt's race Sunday.

"It was perfect," Wren said. "He hasn't run in two months. I hate to run second, but for as much as I've done with him, I'm really happy."