01/08/2008 1:00AM

Lecomte coming up strong


Churchill Downs Inc.'s blockbuster-stakes-day concept has some chops, at least from the look of Saturday's card at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. While no superstars - not yet, at least - appear on the program, the six $100,000 stakes races on the card drew competitive fields with plenty of quality for their respective class levels.

Saturday's Grade 3 Lecomte is among the first Triple Crown prep races of the season, and it drew a field of nine that includes several potentially legitimate prospects for Fair Grounds major 3-year-old race, the March 8 Louisiana Derby. Star Guitar, one of the entrants, was injured in a workout this week and will be scratched.

Hard Spun won last year's Lecomte, and while no horse of that stature was entered in this edition, the race includes Blackberry Road, second last out in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, and Texas Fever, whose major mark at 2 was a win over Blackberry Road and eight others in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park. The Kentucky Cup Juvenile was contested on Polytrack, and Blackberry Road almost certainly is a better dirt horse. Texas Fever, on the other hand, has never raced on a conventional dirt track, and earned a spot in the Lecomte with a series of sharp Fair Grounds main-track breezes in recent weeks.

"He's training well on the dirt," trainer Mike Stidham said. "His last work was visibly impressive."

The work to which Stidham referred came Jan. 6, a bullet six furlongs in 1:14. Texas Fever also ran the fastest work of the morning on three other occasions, and was second-fastest among 42 half-mile workers when he breezed Dec. 20.

But the Lecomte runs deeper than those two.

The Darp won a two-turn maiden race on Dec. 14 by more than nine lengths. Mad Flatter won a two-turn entry-level allowance race on Dec. 27, and has been sharp in all three of his career starts. Macho Again finished second by a neck to well-regarded Monba in his most recent start, a Nov. 24 allowance race at Churchill Downs. And Steve Asmussen has brought from his New York string Z Fortune, an easy winner against New York-breds in his first two races.

The Tiffany Lass for 3-year-old fillies looks less deep than the Lecomte, and may even have the once-started Tizaqueena as its favorite.

The stakes sequence begins with a strong edition of the Gaudin, a six-furlong sprint, and continues with the Grade 3 Colonel Bradley at two turns on turf, the Louisiana Handicap at two turns on dirt, and the Leggio, a filly-and-mare turf sprint featuring longtime rivals Smitty's Sunshine and Flying Circle.

Stall barn's ups offset by downs

Al Stall is having a strong Fair Grounds season, and already has sent out a startling five first-time starters to victory during the meet. But the Stall barn has suffered some recent setbacks, the most untimely of which was Star Guitar's injury, a shin fracture that will send him to the sidelines just as his career was getting started.

Star Guitar worked a half-mile Monday, though his injury wasn't detected until Tuesday morning. "He had a little local heat this morning, and was a little off when he jogged," Stall said.

Stall said it hadn't yet been determined whether Star Guitar would require the surgical insertion of a metal pin to fuse the shin, or whether the injury could heal properly through rest alone.

Star Guitar was going to face his toughest test in the Lecomte, but looked if nothing else like an outstanding Louisiana-bred. He impressively won his career debut on opening day, and captured the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile less than three weeks later.

Also out with an injury is the 3-year-old Tend, a two-turn debut winner at Turfway Park last fall. Tend fractured his hind ankle in a Dec.o9 workout, but already is halfway through a prescribed 60-day rest period.

And finally, two Claiborne Farm-owned stakes-class fillies in the Stall barn, Total and Nunnery, have been retired, and will be bred this winter.

Proud Spell nears season debut

Proud Spell, an Eclipse Award finalist for champion 2-year-old filly in 2007, continues making steady progress toward her 2008 debut, which is expected to come next month in the Silverbulletday Stakes.

Proud Spell won her first three races, including the Grade 2 Matron at Belmont, before finishing second to Indian Blessing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, her most recent start. On Saturday, she logged her second workout since returning to the track, going a half-mile in 49 seconds.

"She's doing very well, maturing nicely," said trainer Larry Jones. "We're very happy with the transformation between her 2-year-old and 3-year-old years. She was on the small side as a 2-year-old, but she's getting to be a nice-sized 3-year-old filly."

Maren's Meadow, another Jones-trained 3-year-old filly, won a Dec. 31 allowance race at Fair Grounds, her first start since she was the victim of foul play on Oct. 16 at Delaware Park. Maren's Meadow, who had been fourth in the Matron, finished third as the 4-5 favorite in an allowance race that day, and was subsequently found to have raced with a sponge obstructing her airway, an incident still under investigation by racing authorities.

"I haven't spoken to them in over a month about it, but they thought they were starting to zero in," Jones said.

Maren's Meadow will be kept to one-turn races for now, with her next start likely to come in an Oaklawn Park stakes race.

Honest Man, who scored his second straight impressive Fair Grounds allowance-race win on Saturday, also could hit the road for his next start. Jones said Honest Man is a possible runner in the Jan. 26 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston, but that Honest Man could "stay right there in New Orleans and do one more allowance race."

Honest Man, a 4-year-old Unbridled's Song colt, won an entry-level allowance race by more than five lengths on Dec. 5, and on Saturday won a second-level allowance by almost three, clocking a good 1 1/16-mile time of 1:44.80 over a slow-playing racing surface.