03/06/2008 12:00AM

Grasshopper goes for two in a row

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NEW ORLEANS - The world changed for trainer Neil Howard and the owners of Grasshopper right about the time Curlin was taken to Dubai. Had Curlin remained here at Fair Grounds, he would have been an overwhelming favorite in last month's Mineshaft Handicap and on Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap.

"We weren't going to run off the bench against Curlin," Howard said at his barn the other morning. "I don't know what we were going to do, but it wasn't going to be that."

Instead, the Red Sea parted.

"I followed that van to the airport to make sure he left," Howard said, joking.

Without Curlin standing in the way, Grasshopper went off as the 7-5 favorite in last month's Mineshaft, and he scored a deceptively easy 2 1/2-length victory. He is likely to be just as strongly favored Saturday in the 83rd running of the New Orleans Handicap, which kicks off a $200,000-guaranteed pick-four wager at Fair Grounds.

"I was thrilled with his last race," Howard said. "He ran very well, and it wasn't an overly stressful race on him."

Grasshopper will carry top weight of 119 pounds in the 1 1/8-mile New Orleans Handicap and will concede from two to four pounds to five rivals. Six were entered against Grasshopper, but trainer Steve Asmussen said that Encaustic, the 112-pound lightweight, would be scratched to instead run Saturday in the Grade 3, $150,000 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

Grasshopper, 4, is best known for finishing second to Street Sense in last year's Travers Stakes. It was after another second, in the following month's Super Derby, that Grasshoppper got an extended vacation that lasted until the Mineshaft.

"The whole Travers scenario might have taken the starch out of him," Howard said. "We gave him a busman's holiday - light training, walk for a few weeks. Looking back now, I'd like to think it paid off."

Silver Lord and Magna Graduate, the second- and third-place finishers in the Mineshaft, are back to challenge, but the biggest threats to Grasshopper could be the veteran Brass Hat and Circular Quay, last year's Louisiana Derby winner.

Brass Hat most recently finished fourth in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, his first start since finishing second in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. At age 7, he has made just 22 starts, owing to two lengthy vacations to recover from fractures to his right front ankle.

"We didn't know if his campaign would last this long," said Buff Bradley, who trains Brass Hat for his father, Fred. "We know how fortunate we are. We'd never go on if he wasn't 100 percent. I've never had any pressure from my father, which helps out. His legs are as cold as they've ever been, and he's as sharp as he's ever been."

Brass Hat comes from farther back than Grasshopper. Bradley believes there will be enough speed to help Brass Hat.

"The race shapes up great for him," Bradley said. "I think he likes this track. It's got a good cushion to it, and he gets a hold of it."

The late-running Circular Quay has lost four straight races - and has not even finished in the money - since his Louisiana Derby win. This will be only his second start since returning from a seven-month layoff.

Todd Pletcher, who trains Circular Quay and Magna Graduate, is adding blinkers to both horses.

Silver Lord could inherit the early lead from his inside draw. He has finished first or second in all five of his starts.