01/16/2004 12:00AM

Leggio strong race on turf or main track

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There were 14 horses nominated to the Dr. A.B. Leggio Handicap, Sunday's featured race at Fair Grounds, and 13 were entered to run. The scenario is a racing secretary's dream, plus a bonanza for bettors and fans less inclined to gambling.

Not only is the Leggio field well matched, it has more talent than one would expect for a $60,000 stakes race. Although she lost her last start, Leslie's Love has emerged as the top female turf sprinter in Louisiana and Texas. One could argue that Brown Eyed Beauty, another Leggio starter, earned the same position in Kentucky last fall. Throw in Boozin' Susan - who beat Leslie's Love by 1 1/2 lengths at Fair Grounds three weeks ago - and several others with talent, and the concoction becomes quite tasty.

Clouding the race is the specter of mud. Rain, and plenty of it, is forecast in New Orleans on Friday and Saturday. Scheduled for 5 1/2 furlongs on turf, the Leggio could wind up on dirt, which is part of the reason for the glut of entries.

A surface switch requires a switch in perspective. The top grass horses in the field go both ways, grass and dirt, but if it rains, they will run into a main-track sprint specialist, Savorthetime.

Trainer Jeff Thornbury said Boozin' Susan was likely to stay in the Leggio even if it moves to dirt. But you could tell from Thornbury's voice that, while dirt is acceptable, grass is much preferred. And no wonder, since Boozin' Susan came to Thornbury's barn two months ago to run in one-turn grass races at Fair Grounds.

"She's a turf sprinter, and this is the place for that," Thornbury said.

Boozin' Susan's crusty name belies the character of her connections. Thornbury and owner Larry Weber were the ones who claimed Rick's Natural Star, the hopelessly overmatched horse who was eased in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Turf, from a race at Turf Paradise. The horse now lives at Thornbury's Kentucky farm.

That and 50 cents, as the saying goes, gets them a cup of coffee, and Thornbury's negative sense of the surface switch is warranted. Leslie's Love also may be a notch better on turf, though she won twice last summer and fall on dirt. Brown Eyed Beauty, from the Hal Wiggins barn, hit a peak last year, winning three of her last four races.

Brown Eyed Beauty runs well on both turf and dirt, but she may not be the equal of Savorthetime. After winning a minor stakes at Arlington last summer, Savorthetime took a step back, losing two starts in Kentucky, but she was back to her best Dec. 20, with a striking win in the San Felipe Stakes at Sam Houston.