03/02/2004 1:00AM

Howard gets his Derby duo in gear


NEW ORLEANS - The three leading local contenders for the Louisiana Derby took the track here Tuesday morning for their final workout before the race. Two of them, Gradepoint and Breakaway, worked as a team, getting their breeze started just as the third horse, Fire Slam, finished his.

The action took place under sunny skies, on a humid morning that felt more like south Florida than south Louisiana; the temperature was already over 70 degrees when the horses hit the track just after 8:30. Those temperatures and storms are forecast the rest of the week, but clear skies and cooler air should arrive in time for the weekend's main events, the Fair Grounds Oaks on Saturday and the Louisiana Derby on Sunday.

From all appearances, the three Tuesday workers should have a say in the Louisiana Derby's outcome. Fire Slam did his major work for the race two weeks ago, and though this move was not designed to showcase his talent, it blazed through, anyway. Working by himself, with Shane Sellers up, Fire Slam breezed beautifully; even his quick final time, 47.40 seconds for a half-mile, does not do him justice. Fire Slam broke off in a comfort zone, cruised around the turn with fluid strides, and sizzled through the stretch, with Sellers sitting motionless.

"I thought it was a beautiful work," said David Carroll, who trains Fire Slam for owner Stan Fulton. "It's as well as he's ever worked. He pulled up fine, and he came back and cleaned up his feed."

If Fire Slam's lingering hind foot ailment is bothering him, he isn't letting it show. Fire Slam was battling a serious quarter crack when he won the Lecomte Stakes in his last start, and his hoof still has not fully healed. Fire Slam worked in a bar shoe Tuesday and may race in one Sunday, Carroll said.

Breakaway and Gradepoint, both trained by Neil Howard, worked six furlongs together, and later Tuesday, Howard confirmed that Breakaway almost certainly is headed to the Louisiana Derby. Breakaway scored an easy allowance win less than two hours before Gradepoint won the Risen Star Stakes here Feb. 15. They worked six furlongs Tuesday, with Gradepoint, ridden by his regular exercise rider Annie Finney, timed in 1:14.60, and Breakaway, ridden by Calvin Borel, timed in 1:15. Borel has the mount on Breakaway in the Louisiana Derby, and Robby Albarado rides Gradepoint.

Breakaway broke off about three lengths in front of Gradepoint, who ranged up beside Breakaway as they turned for home. They ran together until they were inside the eighth pole, when Breakaway edged clear, finishing a little more than a length in front of Gradepoint and galloping out well in front of him.

"I was pleased with both of them," said Howard.

Although Breakaway hit the finish line first, Howard said, "he didn't really outwork [Gradepoint] from my standpoint. If Gradepoint works anywhere close to his work-mate, that's good for him."

Howard said Gradepoint has always been an indifferent horse in the morning. "He's a totally different horse in the a.m. than the p.m."

A large field is expected for the Louisiana Derby. The probable field includes Indian War Dance, Shadowland, Nightlifeatbigblue, Borrego, Pollard's Vision, Shaniko, and Wimbledon, with a couple of other horses considered possible starters.

Handpainted has sharp breeze

Handpainted put in a brilliant six-furlong breeze here Monday and could make her next start March 13 in the Oaklawn Breeders' Cup. Her trainer, Josie Carroll, cautioned that immediate plans hadn't been finalized for Handpainted, an impressive comeback winner here in the Feb. 7 Pan Zareta Handicap,.

"We're looking at that race, but nothing's definite yet," Carroll said, reached by phone in Florida. "It's a long year."

An A.P. Indy filly, Handpainted showed great promise at age 2, but had her 3-year-old season curtailed by physical issues. She clearly was back on her game in the Pan Zareta, the first start of her 4-year-old campaign, and her work Monday, timed in 1:11.40, suggests Handpainted continues to thrive. Three other horses worked six furlongs Monday, the quickest of them going in 1:16.

"This filly has always worked fast," Carroll said of Handpainted. "You don't want to see them work that fast, but that's what this filly does. She came home strong, and that's what's important."

Spectacular Lisa may try Oaklawn

Another Fair Grounds horse who could wind up in the Oaklawn BC is the rapidly improving Spectacular Lisa, who easily won the Feb. 21 Chou Croute in her last start. Spectacular Lisa has gone 3 for 3 since coming to the Fair Grounds barn of Mike Stidham from south Florida.

Spectacular Lisa also has been nominated to the Next Move Handicap at Aqueduct, but Stidham said he was "leaning toward Oaklawn. It's less of a ship and more money."

Stidham also said Tuesday that there is a strong chance Herculated will make his next start in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap on March 21. On Saturday, Herculated won his third straight start since coming back from a layoff; all three races having been run under allowance conditions on the local grass course. Saturday, Herculated easily ran down the Grade 2 winner Royal Spy, who raced loose on a slow pace.

"He loves this turf course, and as long as he's doing well coming up to the [Muniz], he's earned a shot," Stidham said. "He's gotten good and stayed good. Even if he just gets a piece of it, we'd be happy."

One ship-in whom Herculated could meet in the Muniz is Burning Sun, who won his U.S. debut Sunday at Santa Anita. After Sunday's New Orleans Handicap, trainer Bobby Frankel suggested Burning Sun would fly here and run in the Muniz.

Shadow Cast ready for Oaks

There were several other works of note Tuesday, including Shadow Cast's five-furlong breeze in 1:01.60. The winner of the Silverbulletday in her last start, Shadow Cast goes Saturday in the Fair Grounds Oaks. Also working Tuesday were the 4-year-old filly Allspice (four furlongs in 51.60 seconds) and Mountain General (four furlongs in 52.40).

Healthy Nakeeb returns

Thursday's featured ninth race may hinge on workouts. If Nakeeb runs to his morning training, he should be tough to beat in this entry-level allowance at one mile and 40 yards on dirt.

Nakeeb faces six horses, including Mountain Beacon and Nine Chimes, the two-three finishers in a one-mile race at this class level Feb. 8. Nakeeb hasn't raced since he won his maiden last April at Gulfstream, but his new trainer, Mike Pino, seems to have laid the groundwork for a successful comeback.

A Cape Town colt owned by Shadwell Farm, Nakeeb has logged 30 furlongs worth of published breezes in the last two months, and the six works showing on his form - including one six-furlong move in 1:13.60 - should have him prepared for this start.