Updated on 09/17/2011 10:01AM

Home advantage: Four locals all have a good shot

Lou Hodges, Jr.
Balto Star ran a big race at Fair Grounds when he won the Whirlaway (above) on Feb. 9.

NEW ORLEANS - Four have traveled from Florida and three from California to race Sunday at Fair Grounds. But if recent history is any gauge, the four-horse local contingent will give the shippers everything they can handle in the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap.

Locally based horses have won the last four New Orleans handicaps, dealing defeat to highly regarded ship-ins such as Real Quiet and Golden Missile. This year's locals have something to prove, but the group is talented. Bonapaw set the pace and finished third last out in the Whirlaway Handicap, his first two-turn try in years, and Valhol was favored to win this race last year. But the two to watch closest are Mineshaft and Learned, who finished a nose apart here when Mineshaft won the Diplomat Way Handicap.

This time, the late-running, long-striding Learned has an extra half-furlong to work with in the 1 1/8-mile New Orleans Handicap. Mineshaft, victorious in 3 of his 4 races in this country, races with the anti-bleeding medication Lasix for the first time and has been training perfectly for this start.

Mineshaft has 2 1/2 lengths to make up on Balto Star, who shipped from Florida and won the Grade 3 Whirlaway here Feb. 9 with arguably his best dirt race since the Arkansas Derby of 2001. Balto Star shoulders top weight of 120 pounds Sunday and may be favored off his strong Whirlaway win. Once a one-dimensional speedball, Balto Star has learned to ration his speed, and thanks to his relaxed style he got a perfect trip rating just behind Bonapaw's soft pace in the Whirlaway. With more pace in this race, including the speedy Booklet, Balto Star can't afford to revert to his headstrong ways.

"I don't think it's a problem whether he's sitting second, third, or fourth," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who has kept the local rider Eddie Martin on Balto Star. "Bonapaw will show speed, Booklet probably will show speed, and we should be right behind them."

Booklet lost to Best of the Rest by a half-length Jan. 25 in the Sunshine Millions Classic, and both arrived here Thursday from Florida, Best of the Rest by plane, Booklet by van.

Booklet hasn't won a stakes race since the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth more than a year ago. Trainer John Ward said Booklet doesn't need to race on the lead and can be "anyplace Pat Day wants to put him." Ward said, "This race is a turning point for Booklet. It will tell us if a mile and an eighth is his distance. If not, there are a lot of other options now."

For Best of the Rest, an 8-year-old warrior, Sunday's race is his first start outside Florida since a disastrous trip to Prairie Meadows last July, when he finished seventh in the Cornhusker Handicap. Trainer Eddie Plesa blamed Best of the Rest's showing on a poor ride, but the question remains whether Best of the Rest can run his best race away from home.

The Californians have proven even less than the Louisiana-based horses. Sunday Break's last decent race came in the Belmont Stakes, and he has started only once since then. Olmodavor was second in the Strub last out, but was beaten seven lengths by Medaglia d'Oro. Tracemark finished third in the Strub and hasn't won since last April.

Trainer Neil Howard won't blame Mineshaft's defeat to Balto Star on bleeding, but the addition of Lasix on Sunday can't hurt his chances. Moreover, Mineshaft's career, which began last year in English turf races, remains on an upward arc.

"We're still learning things about him," said Howard.

The Diplomat Way was Learned's first stakes try, and trainer Bobby Barnett concedes Sunday's race is a big step. "It's a test for him," Barnett said. "But I think he's meant to be in the race. That last race plus the way he's trained since then have been excellent."

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