03/01/2007 1:00AM

Hodges holds high hand in Dixie Poker Ace


NEW ORLEANS - Trainer James Hodges is approaching Saturday's $75,000 Dixie Poker Ace at Fair Grounds like a Texas hold 'em player with a pair of aces in his hand and another showing. The best Louisiana-bred older turf horses have been pointing toward this mile race ever since Louisiana Champions Day in December. Hodges entered two of the first four finishers in the Louisiana Champions Turf - Chip Hunter and Diggy Fresh - in the Dixie Poker Ace. He also entered Tommy's Turn, who runs as part of a coupled entry with Chip Hunter, for the Keep Moving Stable.

Tommy's Turn, a 4-year-old Conquistador Cielo gelding, has never been off the board in five turf starts. He won his last two grass races before the Fair Grounds meet but has failed in two dirt stakes since.

"I tried to enter Tommy in grass races here but they didn't go," said Hodges.

Chip Hunter, a 5-year-old son of Jade Hunter, was a fast-closing second to Florida shipper Desert Wheat in the Louisiana Champions Turf. Desert Wheat returned to run 11th in the Col. E.R. Bradley Stakes, while Chip Hunter tuned up for this with a handy allowance score.

"I wanted to get that race into Chip Hunter," said Hodges. "The last time Desert Wheat ran, he ran bad. They had to bring him in from Florida and everything. I think we've got a shot to beat him this time."

Diggy Fresh, a stakes winner on the grass, finished fourth behind Desert Wheat in the Turf and hasn't gotten a chance to run back on grass since. A 6-year-old by Indian Charlie, Diggy Fresh is coming off a good third in the $200,000 Louisiana Premier Championship on the dirt at Delta Downs.

"I wanted to give Diggy another race before this here but it didn't work out," said Hodges.

"I'm expecting them all to run pretty good."

Hodges's optimism notwithstanding, several horses in the field will be difficult to beat. Desert Wheat was much the best on Champions Day, and if he runs back to that race the 4-year-old Wheaton colt is the probable winner - but consistency has not been his strong point.

Multiple stakes winner Mr. Sulu won this race the last time it was held at the Fair Grounds in 2005 and finished second in last year's renewal at Louisiana Downs. The Champions Turf was his first race since July and he appeared to be short after making a move toward the lead in the stretch and then tiring to third. Trainer Josie Carroll has been lamenting the lack of a spot to run him back before this race, but he is working sensationally in the mornings and could win the Dixie Poker Ace on memory.

Nowandforevermore is a newcomer to this group and a series threat.

A 4-year-old Sky Classic gelding, he has had a sensational meet, winning twice on dirt, then finishing a troubled-trip second in his first grass start before cruising to victory on turf last time out. Those two grass races were sprints, but if he can stretch his brilliance around two turns, Nowandforevermore can win on Saturday.

My Friend Bele, Huckie hook up

Hodges could have a memorable day Saturday as he also has the talented Huckie in the co-featured $75,000 Happy Ticket Stakes for 3-year-old Louisiana-bred fillies.

"I like her chances in there," he said.

Huckie was a rising star at the beginning of this meet. After finishing third in her 2-year-old debut she reeled off three straight victories, the last a decisive score in the Louisiana Lassie on Champions Day. She then finished third as the 7-10 favorite in the Louisiana Futurity, followed by another third in the Louisiana Premier Star at Delta Downs.

Hodges, noting that Huckie was losing concentration around the turn, fitted her with blinkers for her next start, the Sarah Lane's Oates at a mile on the turf. Huckie ran a huge race that day, leading the way before tiring in the final furlong and finishing third. The cutback to six furlongs in the Happy Ticket should suit her perfectly.

Huckie will meet a familiar rival in the Happy Ticket - My Friend Bele. My Friend Bele spent the first three races of her career eyeing Huckie's hindquarters, then turned the tables on Huckie in the Premier Star.

Huckie and My Friend Bele might well be slugging it out on the front end Saturday, and if the pace gets too hot it could work to the benefit of multiple stakes-placed Princess Deelite, who has a decent closing kick.

Brother Bean sets track record

Louisiana-bred Brother Bean has been one of the fastest horses on the Fair Grounds racetrack this meeting, so it was no surprise when he was bet down to odds of 3-10 in Thursday's first race, an open-company second-level allowance sprint where his statebred victories didn't count against him.

His connections won more than money when Brother Bean - trained by Victor Arceneaux - broke the track record for the heavily used 5 1/2-furlong distance.

Brother Bean broke alertly from the rail under Robby Albarado and set the pace under heavy pressure from Miner's Lamp through a quarter mile in 22.38 seconds and a half in 44.97. He edged away from Miner's Lamp soon after turning for home but Albarado kept busy on him to the wire. Brother Bean won by a widening 2 3/4 lengths in 1:03.09, breaking the old mark of 1:03.20 set by Toby's Success on Jan. 26, 2004.