Updated on 09/16/2011 6:56AM

Handicap horses seek distinction

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Graeme Hall wins the Stuyvesant at Belmont on Breeders' Cup Day. He is one of Sunday's leaders.

NEW ORLEANS - The handicap division is looking for leaders.

Injury and retirement have gutted the ranks of top-class older horses this year, and Saturday's 14-horse free-for-all in the Santa Anita Handicap may not bring the picture into focus. Perhaps Fair Grounds can help.

Sunday's $500,000 New Orleans Handicap brings together a field of nine, and while there are no easy throwouts, Kiss a Native, Valhol, and Graeme Hall are the ones who can step up and prove they belong in the upper echelon of the handicap division.

Weights won't play a major role in this handicap - Kiss a Native and Graeme Hall each tote 116 pounds, one more than Valhol - but distance could. The Grade 2 Handicap is run over nine furlongs, which could test the stamina of local horses accustomed to the 1 1/16 miles of Fair Grounds's four other stakes in this division.

Valhol has won two stakes at this meet and his standout performance Feb. 10 in the Whirlaway Handicap marked him as the sharpest local hope for this race. And though Valhol's record shows he has tried 1 1/8 miles four times with only two third-place finishes, it's important to recall Valhol was an easy winner at nine furlongs in the 1999 Arkansas Derby before being disqualified because his rider was found to have carried an illegal electrical device.

"Distance isn't a problem for him," trainer Dallas Keen said Friday morning as he watched Valhol getting a bath outside his Fair Grounds barn. "He's got that long stride when he relaxes. He's covering a lot of ground."

Since he was disqualified from the Arkansas Derby, Valhol, who will be ridden by Robby Albarado, has never officially won a graded stakes race, which puts him behind Kiss a Native and Graeme Hall in terms of accomplishment.

Kiss a Native, who traveled by van from Miami to New Orleans earlier this week, has won 10 of 20 career starts and is a Grade 2 winner. His performance Feb. 9 in the Grade 1 Donn was arguably the strongest of his career, as Kiss a Native was forced to take far back off the early pace after breaking from post 13. Jockey Cornelio Velazquez threaded his way through traffic on the far turn and Kiss a Native finished powerfully, beaten only a length for the win and was moved from third to second when Red Bullet was disqualified.

"He's never been better," trainer Bill White proclaimed this week.

Graeme Hall, a multiple Grade 2 winner, made his seasonal debut in the Donn, and trainer Todd Pletcher warned before the race that Graeme Hall was the sort of horse who might not be at his best coming back from a layoff. It was an accurate prediction. Graeme Hall raced in midpack early in the race but faded late and finished eighth. But Graeme Hall, who will be ridden by John Velazquez, moved forward in his second start last season and has every right to do so again Sunday.

Keats is the speed of the New Orleans Handicap and has an excuse for his poor performance in the Donn, where he finished last. Trainer Niall O'Callaghan said Keats grabbed a quarter sometime early in the race, and the injury he sustained was serious enough to require treatment for several days.

Keats's presence will either alter the front-running strategy employed by Valhol in the Whirlaway or force Valhol into a pace faster than he would like. Longshot Fight for Alley also has speed, and a meltdown on the front end could land an outsider like Parade Leader a high placing.

Trainer Neil Howard said there's a chance Parade Leader would be scratched from the Handicap in favor of a different race, but off a closing second-place finish in the Whirlaway, Parade Leader has a chance at an upset Sunday. "He should like a mile and an eighth," Howard said.

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