02/07/2008 12:00AM

Invaders look superior in FG 'Cap

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NEW ORLEANS - You could look at Saturday's Fair Grounds Handicap as a battle between locals and shippers. But the race doesn't break down that neatly.

For starters, the shippers simply are much more accomplished than the locals. Any racing fan with a pulse knows Better Talk Now, at age 9 the old man of the Grade 1 set. Better Talk Now shipped in to New Orleans on Tuesday, while Wednesday saw the arrival of California-based Daytona, not as famous as Better Talk Now, but a winner of three straight graded stakes, including the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby.

But Better Talk Now and Daytona venture away from home, while Sterwins, French Beret, and Inca King all have been going steadily in New Orleans. Sterwins won the Dec. 15 Diliberto Memorial, then finished a tough-trip third behind French Beret's upset of the Jan. 12 Colonel Bradley. Inca King beat fellow Fair Grounds Handicap entrant Jazz Quest by a neck in the Dec. 24 Woodchopper, a race restricted to 3-year-olds.

Better Talk Now's lone prior trip to Fair Grounds was for the 2002 Woodchopper, where he finished eighth. That was well before Better Talk Now's glory years, but even at this late date in Better Talk Now's career, questions about his suitability for Saturday's race may have more to do with distance than age.

"A mile and an eighth, he's always handled it, but he needs a clean trip the last eighth of a mile," trainer Graham Motion said. "That's the only time he's going to be running."

Daytona was purchased slightly less than a year ago in Ireland mainly as a synthetic-surface prospect, but his niche is turf. It took Daytona a few starts to find himself, but his grass form from nine to 10 furlongs beginning last fall is excellent.

"Probably the reason we were able to acquire him, and why they gelded him, is he was such a strong horse," trainer Dan Hendricks said. "My assistant, Francisco Alvarado, really worked to settle him down and focus more on racing. He really matured over the summer."

Hendricks said he needs to find out how Daytona ships, and how he handles courses outside California. Trainer Mark Frostad thinks French Beret has found his best spot at Fair Grounds.

"He's been training like a maniac down here," Frostad said.

Sterwins was hurt by a lack of pace in French Beret's win, but between Daytona and Inca King, the early splits Saturday should be honest.

"I've never had a horse pull as hard as he does and still be able to win," said Inca King's trainer, Steve Asmussen.