01/27/2004 12:00AM

Herculated could make rivalry moot

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NEW ORLEANS - The Louisiana-bred turf horses Coach Rags and Mr. Sulu have squared off many times the last three seasons. Usually, they're clearly the two most accomplished horses in a statebred stakes or allowance race, but when they meet again in the Thursday feature at Fair Grounds, the rivalry will have a twist. The aging pair contests an open allowance, and this is no match race.

were among eight entered in Thursday's ninth race, carded at about 1 1/16 miles on turf and open to nonwinners of three races other than maiden, claiming, starter, or statebred. The 8-year-old Coach Rags has 11 wins and Mr. Sulu six, but most have come in Louisiana-bred races, leaving them eligible for this condition. These two have the seasoning, but do they have the talent of the up-and-coming Herculated?

Wave, Image, and Just Gossip add depth to the race. Phi Beta Doc appears overmatched, while Astrologist will have his best chance if the race is rained onto the main track.

Mr. Sulu and Coach Rags both come off wins, but Mr. Sulu's was better. A 6-year-old by Rail, owned in partnership by Red McMurray and Josie Carroll and trained by Carroll, Mr. Sulu has aged gracefully. Carroll believes Mr. Sulu is as good now as he was a couple of seasons ago, and she has worked hard to make that happen. One morning last month, Carroll was seen leading Mr. Sulu back to her barn after his morning exercise, a long trek with a lead shank in hand. Mr. Sulu, who has been headstrong at times and races in ear mufflers, has required that kind of attention.

After having races rained off the turf in November and December, Mr. Sulu got his preferred surface here Jan. 10, but the open allowance field he easily beat that day lacked the strength of this one.

Particularly, it lacked Herculated, who had won a second-level grass allowance two weeks earlier. Making his first start in six months, Herculated pressed a solid pace, took over in upper stretch, and won off by 1 1/4 lengths, running a mile in a strong 1:37.20. And his connections breathed a sigh of relief. Herculated won the first two starts of his career last season at Fair Grounds, but he looked nothing like that horse in a pair of losses at Arlington last summer.

"He had some ankle problems. He needed some time off, and we gave it to him," said Mike Stidham, who trains Herculated for Oak Crest Farm. "He's training very well going into this, and we think he can run a big race."