03/03/2004 12:00AM

Life after Mineshaft not so bad

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NEW ORLEANS - There is only a wisp of a chance that a horse as wonderfully gifted as Mineshaft will return to the Fair Grounds barn of trainer Neil Howard. No one knows that as well as Howard and his help.

But when Mineshaft, the 2003 Horse of the Year, went off to stud this winter, somebody had to take up residence in the stall situated about 15 feet - one quick glance - away from Howard's desk.

The colt that now inhabits Mineshaft's old space, the one that gets rubbed by the same groom, taken to the track by the same exercise rider, is no Mineshaft. But when this horse, Gradepoint, began coming around during the Fair Grounds meet, he swept up the barn along with him.

Gradepoint won the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes here Feb. 14, a day after another horse from the Howard barn, Shadow Cast, won the Grade 2 Silverbulletday Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Both return to action this weekend, Gradepoint in Sunday's Louisiana Derby, Shadow Cast in the Fair Grounds Oaks on Saturday. Add another to the fray, the rapidly improving Breakaway, who joins Gradepoint in the derby.

No one in the stable really saw this coming when the Fair Grounds meet began in November, with Mineshaft's departure still fresh in mind.

"I was still in my own fog," said Joe DeSantis, Howard's assistant for the last four years. "We had a decent Churchill meet last fall, and I was just hoping to get through the meet down here, break a couple maidens, and move some horses along."

Gradepoint, a bulky, gorgeous lug of a horse, has come steadily forward. He might not be fast enough to win, but Gradepoint can last the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby. Breakaway, rail thin and boyish in November, has gained weight and started mastering the game. Shadow Cast showed ability at Churchill last fall, and the modest hope was that she could win some kind of stakes race this spring.

These horses have sneaked up on people, but they shouldn't have. This outfit cranks out stakes horses like a machine, but without the machine mentality. The operation hums smoothly along, no matter which horse is in that first stall.

"I don't know if you can really say something is intense and relaxed at the same time, but that's what it is here," DeSantis said. "Everyone knows their place in the barn."

Annie Finney, the exercise rider for Mineshaft and Gradepoint, has worked with Howard about three years. "It feels like I've been here a lot longer than that, in a comfortable way," she said. "It seems pretty unusual, because we all do seem to get along so well."

DeSantis relishes working for Howard; it's his dream job. Howard, the son of a tradesman, raised in a small apartment in The Bronx, says the same thing about working for the owner, Will Farish. Perhaps that is why the people that work for him feel so fulfilled.

"I've never heard anyone say one bad thing about him," DeSantis said. "I don't know who I could go to work for now."

The Howard barn is blessed with blue-blooded pedigrees. But the horses aren't all perfect. Many have failed to sell at public auction, like Gradepoint, who last February, failed to meet a $77,000 reserve in a Florida sale of 2-year-olds in training.

When Farish first sends a horse like Gradepoint to the racetrack, he contacts Howard to develop a game plan.

"Whenever we get a horse like this, I get a call from Mr. Farish," Howard said. "He'll say, 'When you get this horse, you'll see A, B, and C. Put him on a program, and let's do what we can to get to the races.' That call is to say he's aware of everything going on."

With Gradepoint, Howard said, the program "meant he wouldn't be seeing the races until he was 3." Gradepoint advanced quickly enough to make one start last fall, but the plan remained the same, with a focus on longer-distance races as a 3-year-old.

Breakaway looked more like a Great Dane three months ago. Still on the small side, Breakaway filled out and gained confidence over the winter. He earned a Louisiana Derby slot with a big allowance win, and more than held his own with Gradepoint in a paired workout Tuesday.

And as the two colts improved, Shadow Cast went from useful filly to a Grade 2 winner. It is a case of young horses growing up and finding themselves.

"The development of horses was never more apparent to me than when I was in the paddock last weekend for the New Orleans Handicap," Howard said. "To look at Peace Rules, and Funny Cide, and Ten Most Wanted, from the way they were when they were 3. You look at your 3-year-olds, and you say, you never know. You have to be patient. You have to give them a chance."

The work of the winter moved to the racetrack for the Risen Star. Howard, and DeSantis, Finney, and a couple others stood among the Fair Grounds crowd gathered in the stands at the finish line. Gradepoint was as slow into stride as ever. He made his move on the far turn, and kept coming as the barn's voices rose. They stood together, yelling in unison.