02/07/2004 1:00AM

Handpainted - she's back!


NEW ORLEANS - Handpainted never has really gotten a chance to showcase her talent. She was injured in the final start of her 2-year-old season, and got hurt again late last spring. Making her first start since May 19, Handpainted won the $60,000 Pan Zareta Handicap by 1 1/2 lengths Saturday at Fair Grounds.

Her Fair Grounds debut was overdue. Handpainted was training toward a comeback start last year, but she never started here, instead finishing a disappointing fifth in the Star Shoot Stakes April 5 at Woodbine. She was much better six weeks later, finishing second in the Grade 1 Selene, but she developed a hairline fracture near her hip, and was out of training until the fall.

Josie Carroll, her trainer, praised owners John and Glen Sikura for giving Handpainted the time to fully recover. And Carroll had her ready on Saturday. She had worked six furlongs in 1:13.20 on Jan. 24, an unusually fast breeze for this racetrack.

"When she worked that way, she came home very strong," Carroll said. "I was confident she was going to run a good race, but I knew there were some very talented and seasoned horses in there to beat."

Handpainted quickly put jockey Larry Melancon into the Pan Zareta, tracking Raymond's Dream through an opening quarter-mile in 22.62 seconds. Distinctive Code, who looked like a pace factor, was bumped from both sides at the start, and the lack of speed horses led to a slow half-mile, 46.05 seconds. Handpainted took control at the head of the stretch, as Tina Bull, the favorite, looked for room on the inside. Tina Bull finally came out at about the eighth pole, but Handpainted, who paid $15 to win, was gone, running six furlongs in 1:10.23.

Tina Bull finished a nose in front of Raymond's Dream for second, followed by Put Me In, Cashmere Miss, and Distinctive Code.

Carroll will consider stretching out Handpainted. "I think there's a future there at two turns," she said.