02/27/2007 12:00AM

Island Warrior one step from stakes

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Of the nine horses entered in the featured ninth race on Thursday at Fair Grounds, seven faced stakes competition in at least one of their two most recent starts, but it's a lightly raced 4-year-old with only one stakes race in his career, Island Warrior, who might be the one to watch.

Island Warrior has gone 2 for 2 at this meet, winning a second-level allowance race Nov. 30 in fine fashion before really showing some flash Jan. 7. In a third-level, six-furlong allowance race that day, Island Warrior came out 2 1/2 lengths on top of Brother Bean, one of the fastest Louisiana-bred sprinters in training, and a horse that won a statebred-restricted stakes race in his next out by more than five lengths.

Even Island Warrior's losses last year had some panache. At a one-mile distance perhaps longer than his best, he finished second to rail-skimming Prayer Service at the Churchill fall meet, and in the Sept. 30 Kentucky Cup Sprint on Turfway Park's Polytrack, Island Warrior nearly overcame a wide post and a tough trip, finishing second by less than a length. At Saratoga, he encountered early trouble before finishing third behind Latent Heat, who has emerged as a middle-distance star this winter in California.

"I think he's a stakes-caliber horse, and I'd like to get him in one eventually," said trainer Dallas Stewart.

Island Warrior hasn't raced in nearly two months because the last Fair Grounds sprint stakes was on turf, which Stewart didn't care to try, and because no suitable race came up until Thursday's $75,000 optional claimer, which is also open to fourth-level allowance horses. If Island Warrior runs the way Stewart hopes - and the way he has been training - he could land in the $150,000 Duncan Kenner on March 24.

There's no other horse in Thursday's feature coming off races as sharp as Island Warrior's, but someone like Cort's P.B. or Smalltown Slew could step up with a winning effort. Cort's P.B. faded to third after chasing Brother Bean last out at Delta, but won the Thanksgiving Handicap on opening day at Fair Grounds. The Tom Amoss-trained Smalltown Slew finished second in the Thanksgiving, second in the Bonapaw, and fourth in the Colonel Power at this meet, but was a lackluster fourth last out in the King Cotton at Oaklawn. He starts Thursday for the $75,000 claiming price - which still is far above the claiming price owner Steve Mongerson paid for the horse last year.