03/18/2005 12:00AM

'Irish' owner's eyes are smiling


NEW ORLEANS - Cheering fans at Fair Grounds waved their green plastic derby hats on Thursday as track announcer Tom Dooley intoned, "It's a St. Patrick's Day win for Skip Irish!"

Dooley has had plenty of practice with variations on that call this year, because Thursday's victory was the fifth of 2005 for Skip Irish, a turf-loving 4-year-old son of Skip Away.

"This call was the most fun [of the five Skip Irish wins]," said Dooley, "but this is a good horse. He won easily on the dirt, too."

Dooley had plenty of time to make the call as Skip Irish flashed past the leaders through the stretch for an emphatic 2 1/4-length win after lagging far behind early.

Skip Irish puts in that kind of flying finish every time, which makes his 5-for-5 mark this year even more memorable. Trainer Steve Asmussen has spotted him perfectly, and Skip Irish has done the rest.

"He's had a great meet. His running style really suits this track," said Asmussen, who can't recall winning five races as quickly with any other horse.

Skip Irish's run has come in $10,000 starter allowances. On New Year's Day he got up by a half-length. On Jan. 22 he hit the front a little earlier than usual and held on by a nose. He returned on Feb. 7, winning by nearly two lengths, then romped over an off-the-turf group Feb. 25.

"He always runs the last furlong in 11 [seconds] and change," said owner Kendall Hansen, a Kentucky physician whose practice is near Turfway Park, where he often attends the races.

Hansen saw Skip Irish win his maiden in a $15,000 claimer over 5 1/2 furlongs at Turfway last March 13 with a last-to-first move.

"I just had to have that horse," he said.

Skip Irish was entered back for $30,000 at Churchill Downs. Hansen claimed him, and he ran eighth. "Someone called the racing office to find out who would bother to claim the horse," Hansen said.

Skip Irish ran twice more on dirt at Churchill, finishing eighth each time. Then he made his grass debut, finishing third at River Downs.

"Halfway through the race he took the bit between his teeth and began to run," said Hansen. "He finished third and passed everybody after the wire."

Skip Irish came back to win at Ellis Park. He lost his following start, but has 6 wins and a second in 7 grass starts since.

St. Roch, Smilin Fine top sales stakes

In one of the most unusual races on the Fair Grounds calendar, stakes-placed horses face a field packed with maidens in Sunday's feature race, the $75,000 Fair Grounds Sales Stakes at a mile on the main track. The race is restricted to 3-year-olds who were offered for sale at the Fair Grounds Sales Company 2-year-olds in training sale of 2004. Though fillies are eligible, this year's field has 10 3-year-old colts and geldings, headed by Smilin Fine and St. Roch.

Smilin Fine, winner of the Shine Young Memorial Futurity at Evangeline Downs last July, finished ahead of St. Roch in an allowance race at Fair Grounds earlier this month, but St. Roch got the better of Smilin Fine in their previous two meetings in stakes races at Delta Downs and Fair Grounds.

Only two other horses in Sunday's stakes have ever won a race. The other six are still maidens.

"Sometimes you get a horse in this race that's one-to-five," said Fair Grounds oddsmaker Mike Diliberto. "They all enter because you're only eligible if you were in that sale."

With a $75,000 pot at stake, even a minor award is worth shooting for.

Saucey Tiger could pose a threat. After running 12 times as a 2-year-old without winning - but finishing second six times - the colt apparently has figured it out as a 3-year-old and has won two straight starts coming into this race.

The other winner is Catquit, who is coming off an easy maiden score against $40,000 claimers.