02/21/2004 12:00AM

Herculated, 'Skate' square off

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NEW ORLEANS - With Mystery Giver waiting for the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap next month, Tuesday's Mardi Gras Handicap should crown his top local challenger.

The Mardi Gras, a 7 1/2-furlong grass race, offers a purse one-tenth the size of the Muniz (formerly the Explosive Bid Handicap). That's unfortunate, because the Mardi Gras field is excellent. Among the chief contenders are Herculated and Skate Away, each of whom could give Mystery Giver or any Muniz ship-in plenty of fight.

have come to hand in a hurry this winter, but the shape of their careers is different. Herculated is lightly raced and has run quickly through his last two allowance conditions. His is the classic ascent up the ladder that separates claimers from stakes horses.

Skate Away, on the other hand, has been bouncing around a couple of seasons, trying to figure out just who he is.

"This was kind of a big dumb colt for a long time," trainer Jeff Trosclair said of Skate Away, a 5-year-old. "Even now, I still kind of feel like I have an improving horse. It's refreshing to have one like him in the barn."

Skate Away won the Colonel Bradley here Jan. 3 and ran even better when he finished second to Mystery Giver in the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup 28 days later. Skate Away might have lost his focus when he made the lead in upper stretch that day - the sort of behavior that makes Trosclair believe Skate Away can do better. And rather than train Skate Away straight into the Muniz, Trosclair will use the Mardi Gras as a set-up.

"I decided it would be better to run than to work him three times in between," Trosclair said. "You hate to work the turfers on a surface they don't prefer. With seven weeks in between, I'd be forced to work him."

Trosclair said Skate Away is "doing exceptionally well," but says the Mardi Gras's abbreviated route distance might be too short.

"I don't think it totally suits him," he said. "Sometimes a good horse will do things you don't expect."

The distance shouldn't trouble Herculated, a 4-year-old colt who has displayed sharp acceleration in his two recent wins. The question here is how high Herculated's ceiling might be.

"Obviously, we're hoping we haven't gotten there yet," trainer Mike Stidham said.

There is other genuine talent in the race, though some of the field of 12 - especially Seainsky and Almuhathir - were entered hoping for a switch to dirt. Great Bloom finished third in the Fair Grounds BC, and Royal Spy has hung around the upper echelon of Midwest turf horses for several seasons.

Five Quarter Horse races precede the card beginning at 10 a.m. Central. The first Thoroughbred race is 12:30 p.m.