03/16/2004 1:00AM

Ideal spot for Midway Road


NEW ORLEANS - When 36 of your 51 starters have finished third or better, and 28 were first or second, things have fallen in your favor. Winter in New Orleans has been good to the Neil Howard barn.

Success starts with having the horses. Next comes knowing what to do with them. Then, the tricky final phase - finding a spot to run. Landing in the right spot time after time has turned Howard's raw materials and craft into an excellent Fair Grounds meet, and on Thursday, it has happened again. Howard mentioned last week that he hoped to run Midway Road in an upcoming allowance race. "If it goes," he said, with an emphasis on "if."

It has gone, and Midway Road, entered in a third-level allowance route race with a $62,500 claiming option, is set to make his first start since finishing third in the Grade 2 Ohio Derby last June. A month earlier, Midway Road was a distant second to Funny Cide in the Preakness.

, a Jade Hunter colt bred and owned by Will Farish, had an awful trip in the Ohio Derby, and came out of the race with a small fracture in a hind leg, an injury that required rest, not surgery.

Howard used a sprint prep race to get Midway Road going last season, but this year, well pleased with Midway Road's training, Howard goes straight to routes. Midway Road's pattern of morning workouts is extraordinary. In the last six weeks, Midway Road has breezed six times, working a total of 28 furlongs. Highlights include a half-mile gate breeze on March 3 timed in 46.80 seconds. Six days later, Midway Road went six furlongs in 1:12.80.

Midway Road can't come back rusty and win this race, because the competition runs deep. Mr. Archibald's luck has been poor all winter, but he can run. El Ruller will show much more than he did finishing ninth in the Whirlaway on Feb. 1, and Neon Shadow, a 10-year-old veteran, is set for an improved effort in his third start after a layoff. Dance to Destiny - another comeback horse - finished third in the Grade 3 Dominion Day Handicap at Woodbine. He and the high-level claimer Zoning will force the pace.

That leaves , perhaps Midway Road's chief rival. Colonial Colony, a 6-year-old with Grade 1 experience, hasn't raced since Oct. 26, but trainer Walter Bindner quickly points out that this horse won after a layoff here last season.

"He's doing just as well right now as he was last year," Bindner said.