01/03/2004 1:00AM

G.W.'s Deputy a sharp horse on rise


NEW ORLEANS - Last Wednesday was New Year's Eve Day, and the Fair Grounds track would be closed for training the next morning. There was more traffic here than on a Los Angeles freeway.

A total of 204 horses worked four or five furlongs the morning of the 31st, a startling number for a racetrack with a barn area the size of the Fair Grounds. The abundance of horses training at Fair Grounds seems to be translating to bigger fields.

After struggling to fill races in late November, the track has seen a marked acceleration in the pace of entries. Not counting also-eligibles, there were 103 horses entered on Monday's 10-race card, including 10 in the featured ninth race, a third-level allowance with a $62,500 claiming option at about 5 1/2 furlongs on turf.

"I think the number of horses we've had working has shown in the entries," said Ben Huffman, the Fair Grounds racing secretary. "It was tough the first week of the meet. I was getting worried. But the last several weeks, I've been very happy with the way races have filled."

The positive trend clearly is evidenced in the Monday feature, a highly playable race with a slew of talented horses. Assessment, however, must begin with G.W.'s Deputy, who ran an amazing race when he finished second by a nose here Dec. 19. G.W.'s Deputy, who loves racing around one turn on the Fair Grounds grass course, was full of run on the backstretch of his race, and his jockey, Elvis Perrodin, was having trouble encouraging G.W.'s Deputy to wait for the stretch to run.

Perrodin managed to hold him back around the far turn, but G.W.'s Deputy turned into the stretch with guns blazing - and promptly lost his footing. The horse nearly went down, and Perrodin was lucky to retain his seat, but in deep stretch, there they came again, just missing a victory.

G.W.'s Deputy, who is trained by Andrew Leggio, steps up a level in class; the horses he faces this time are tougher than the last group. Still, he has won three times in five Fair Grounds grass sprints, and rates a solid chance once again.

But there are plenty of other ways to go. The old class horse Wertz comes back from a long layoff for the owner Mike Gill, who with just two starters has been strangely quiet here. Gracious Humor was a sharp winner on dirt here Dec. 4, but seems vulnerable to a speed duel with as many as four other pace horses in the field.