01/09/2007 1:00AM

Kickoff Day's five stakes draw 56


All has not been golden of late at Fair Grounds, where higher-class races have recently been slow to fill, and handle whacked by wet weather. But the heart of the Fair Grounds meet really starts beating only after New Year's Day has passed, and the first major open stakes day of the season, Saturday's Road to the Derby Kickoff Day, bodes well for things to come.

Fifty-six horses were entered Monday in Saturday's five stakes, including full fields of 14 in two turf stakes and 12 in the Tiffany Lass for 3-year-old fillies. The day's most important race - at least for those with Kentucky Derby blinkers already firmly affixed - is the Lecomte, which also drew the day's shortest field, seven entries.

Still, the Lecomte is worth watching. The highly regarded colt Hard Spun, an easy winner of his first three races, will ship in from trainer Larry Jones's Oaklawn Park base to get his 3-year-old season going, and the one-mile Lecomte will mark Hard Spun's first try around two turns. Hard Spun's most recent victory came in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes, a race that Derby winner Smarty Jones also won at 2.

His local opposition looks formidable. Makeithapencaptain lost his career debut, but then won two straight in Chicago by a combined 25 lengths, including a 16 1/4-length entry-level allowance score at Hawthorne in his first two-turn race. Izzie's Halo won a Dec. 1 maiden race by more than eighth lengths for trainer Tom Amoss, while Beta Capo's most recent start produced an easy Churchill allowance win for trainer Scott Blasi. Tony Terrific has started his career 2-2, with two-turn wins over the Keeneland Polytrack and the Fair Grounds turf. Teuflesberg, the field's most accomplished horse, exits a convincing win in the Sugar Bowl Stakes. Citi Smoke is the outsider.

The Tiffany Lass has more horses than the Lecomte but less quality, with Get Ready Bertie and Pro Pink perhaps the top two choices. And as appealing as any race all day - provided it stays on turf - is the Colonel E. R. Bradley Handicap, with a 14-horse field that includes several graded-stakes-class turf horses. The two other stakes are the Colonel Power for older sprinters and the Leggio Memorial for female turf spinters.

Eight-year-old hits his best stride

How late a bloomer is Sandburr? "He's peaking as an 8-year-old," trainer Mike Stidham said, half-joking, mostly serious.

Sandburr was claimed last April at Sam Houston for just $20,000 by Stidham and an owner's partnership called Feel the Thunder Stable, and when right off the bat he won a $25,000 claimer, then a $40,000 claimer at the Arlington meet, Sandburr looked like a worthy claim. He looks even better now.

Sandburr followed those two Chicago wins with a third in the Claiming Crown Jewel, and two more thirds and a fourth in $40,000 to $50,000 claimers at Keeneland and Churchill. But his form took a turn for the better when he beat Texas-breds Dec. 2 in the $100,000 Star of Texas Stakes at Sam Houston, and on Saturday he wore down pace-setting Jonesboro and held off late-running favorite Patriot Act to win the $75,000 Louisiana Breeders' Cup. The $45,000 winner's share of the purse gave Sandburr more than $160,000 in winnings since he was claimed.

"I couldn't tell you why, but he's blossomed here in the last few months," Stidham said. "He's carrying more weight, and you can see he's filled out more."

Sandburr also has started finishing off his two-turn races after looking like a one-turn miler through the summer.

"When he won in Texas, I told [jockey] Cliff Berry, 'This horse is probably stretching to go a mile and a sixteenth, so don't use him too soon.' Now, all of a sudden he's finishing."

Sandburr, Stidham said, could return to Houston for the Maxxam Gold Cup in three weeks, or race next in the Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 10 at Fair Grounds.

The Stidham barn also has contenders in two of Saturday's stakes, Arbuckle Bandit in the Colonel Bradley and Tony Terrific in the Lecomte. Tony Terrific won his career debut on Polytrack at Keeneland and an allowance race on the Fair Grounds turf, and Stidham hopes the colt can be equally effective on dirt. A wet December affected Tony Terrific's training pattern, but Stidham has gotten two solid works into him for the Lecomte.

"His last two works have been good, and it's just going to be a matter of the dirt and how he handles it," Stidham said.

* Ramsey Zimmerman, the second-leading jockey at the recently concluded Hawthorne meet, has moved his tack to Fair Grounds, and began accepting mounts last week.