01/15/2003 1:00AM

Grand Steal stretches out

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NEW ORLEANS - The Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 25 is the official start of Fair Grounds's 3-year-old stakes season, but consider Friday's ninth-race feature here a prelude to the Lecomte and what lies ahead.

This is the first two-turn, 3-year-old allowance of the Fair Grounds meet, and a colt who shows his connections something now could find himself in the Grade 3 Risen Star on Feb. 16.

Expectations may be highest for Grand Steal, who lost by a nose in his career debut at Churchill but won his second start in a Dec. 28 sprint here by more than two lengths. Grand Steal has shown talent and an ability to run six furlongs in a quick time, but now he will be asked to carry his speed one mile and 40 yards while facing better horses. It's a serious test, but that's the idea. Steve Asmussen, who trains Grand Steal for James Cassels and Bob Zollars, hopes his colt is the real thing, and said that Grand Steal would be pointed for the Risen Star with any sort of positive effort Friday.

"I don't think he even needs to win," Asmussen said. "You just want to see the positive signs."

Grand Steal is by the hot young sire Grand Slam, whose progeny have excelled in sprints but are unproven racing around two turns. Grand Steal ran a quarter-mile in 21.85 seconds while on the lead in his six-furlong win here, but Asmussen believes the colt will relax better if the circumstances are right.

"I think that last race was more of having a fast horse breaking from the one hole who was 3-5," Asmussen said. "What are you going to do, take back? He seems like a kind horse and I have confidence he can relax."

Distance questions don't concern Seattle Hoofer, who is the most obvious threat to Grand Steal, along with Worker Man. Seattle Hoofer made his career debut in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race here on Dec. 22, and after stalking a moderate pace he rallied willingly to win by a half-length. Commander's Affair, third in that race, returned to win his maiden here on Sunday.

Seattle Hoofer's determination impressed Mike Stidham, who trains the colt for Stonerside Stable.

"Now he moves up to another level," Stidham said. "That's the whole thing right now, seeing if they can take the step."

Worker Man drops in class following a pair of stakes races, and though he ran poorly in the Delta Jackpot last month, he finished second in the Sam Houston Texan Juvenile on Nov. 16.

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