12/31/2002 12:00AM

Learned out of Louisiana Handicap

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NEW ORLEANS - Learned's career has dipped precipitously before, but his latest setback will cost him days, not months, of training. Even so, an upper respiratory infection that struck Learned late last week will cause him to miss his scheduled stakes debut Thursday in the Louisiana Handicap.

Even with no stakes experience, Learned would have been one of the favorites in the Louisiana, which was weakened by late defections. Learned impressively won his first three career starts as a 3-year-old in 2001 and had settled in for the 2001-02 Fair Grounds season when he went down with a leg injury last winter that required surgery and a long recovery period. Learned lost the first two starts of his comeback this past fall, but had excuses each time and in November crushed a solid allowance field at Churchill Downs.

Learned, a 5-year-old, has worked three times since shipping to Fair Grounds, and trainer Bobby Barnett was all set to enter him in the Louisiana when the gelding took ill. "We noticed he had some discharge on Friday," Barnett said. "It's probably a week or 10-day setback, that's all."

The next race in the older handicap division is the Diplomat Way on Jan. 19, and the newly graded Whirlaway is on Feb. 9. "We could even try to find a spot on the grass for him," Barnett said.

Barnett hopes Learned can develop into a horse for the New Orleans Handicap. And despite having an unusual body, Learned appears to have that sort of talent. By the low-profile Cox's Ridge stallion Discover, Learned is the tallest horse Barnett has ever trained. His rail-thin, 17-hands frame is supported by long, gangly legs and topped with a huge head. Learned will not win any beauty contests, but he can run.

Home of Stars has raw talent

Trainer Frank "Bobby" Springer spent last winter at Fair Grounds nursing along the talents of a developing black colt named War Emblem. The winter work made for an interesting spring. War Emblem won the Illinois Derby and got famous after owner Russell Reineman sold 90 percent of him to The Throughbred Corp. and War Emblem won two-thirds of the Triple Crown for trainer Bob Baffert.

Things are different this winter for Springer and Reineman. This time, their colt is gray.

His name is Home of Stars, and when he won an open maiden race here Dec. 13 by 1 1/4 lengths, he did so on raw talent. Springer said Home of Stars hasn't yet put his mind to racing, but in terms of sheer ability, he's at least the equal of War Emblem.

"This could be a real nice colt if he goes the right way," Springer said.

Home of Stars essentially is a homebred, though like War Emblem his breeder shows up as Charles Nuckols Jr. and Sons. An Illinois-bred by Home at Last, he finished fourth against statebreds in his Sept. 27 career debut at Arlington, but Springer said Home of Stars floundered on a loose racetrack.

"I've liked this horse from the beginning," said Springer. "He's very athletic. He still doesn't know what he's doing. He's just goofing around right now."

Home of Stars was taking it easy this week while he recovered from a bruised heel. Springer said the colt would return to the track after Jan. 1 and should start in an allowance race later this month.

Lady Tak keeps Thelma small

It's not surprising that there probably won't be a lot of horses in Saturday's Thelma Stakes: Lady Tak is supposed to run, and who wants to tackle her right now?

No chinks have shown through Lady Tak's armor in her two career starts, both at Churchill Downs. She won a maiden race by 11 3/4 lengths before easily winning in a strong allowance field by more than three. Lady Tak has logged several works since shipping to Fair Grounds for trainer Steve Asmussen, who won last year's Thelma with Lake Lady.

"She's a sweetheart, real easy to be around," Asmussen said. "She's traveling well and gets over this racetrack well."

At least two stakes winners will oppose Lady Tak in the six-furlong Thelma: Buffalo Jump, who won the Glorious Song at Woodbine, and Allspice, who won the Eliza Stakes at Arlington in late October.

Training Races

There were several horses worth noting in Monday's four schooling races here. The one-two finishers in the first race, Real Bear and Queen Mindy, both showed promise. Real Bear (trained by Ronny Werner) showed good speed while in hand and ran the stretch well while never being asked by her rider. Queen Mindy moved along the rail turning for home and raced head and head with Real Bear while under equally light encouragement. Real Bear's time of 1:02.40 for five furlongs was the fastest of the day.

Hidden Truth, trained by Neil Howard, finished second in the second race, going well in the stretch and gallop out while never asked for much run. His stride suggests a future in routes. Aleyesak, the winner, also galloped out well for trainer Frank Brothers.

The third was the slowest race of the day, but Miss New Orleans's sharp middle move after a slow break stamped her as a horse to watch.

With Courage was third in the fourth race for trainer Mark Frostad but showed the most promise, running smoothly through the stretch with long strides that suggest he will be best over a distance of ground.