03/05/2004 12:00AM

Locals have the edge in Derby

Fair Grounds
Gradepoint (left), working in company with Breakaway on Tuesday, is the one to beat in Sunday's Louisiana Derby.

NEW ORLEANS - People usually come to this town for evenings of sheer gluttony and utter debauchery, but this weekend, New Orleans has become the most popular campaign stop in the nation. On Friday, Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for President, had a rally at a park next to the French Quarter. His race is eight months long; it is only eight weeks, however, until the Kentucky Derby. The campaign for that race moves through the Fair Grounds on Sunday.

Eleven 3-year-olds, most of whom are bubbling just below the surface of the highest-ranked Derby contenders, were entered Friday for Sunday's $600,000 . It is a fascinating intersectional meeting, with local stakes winners Fire Slam and Gradepoint, California invaders Borrego and Wimbledon, and two horses shipping in from Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher, Pollard's Vision and Shaniko. All 11 carry 122 pounds.

The Grade 2 race, at 1 1/16 miles, will be seen on tape delay on ESPN2, beginning at 6 p.m. The Louisiana Derby is the ninth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m.

Gradepoint, who will race coupled with Breakaway as a Neil Howard-trained entry, figures to be a slight favorite over Fire Slam. Both have captured this track's major preps - Fire Slam took the Lecomte on Jan. 24, and Gradepoint the Risen Star on Feb. 15. Both, however, drew poor posts. Gradepoint is in post 9, and Fire Slam is in post 10.

Fire Slam bypassed the Risen Star because of a nasty quarter crack to his left hind hoof. The injury is not completely healed, but has progressed to the point where trainer David Carroll said he will not need to race Fire Slam in a bar shoe, as he did in the Lecomte.

"The foot's still got a ways to go, but he's comfortable on it," Carroll said Friday. "He's a very, very tough horse. He's not a brilliant horse, but he's tough and consistent, and he's going to make them run."

Gradepoint, like Fire Slam, has won three of four starts. His late-running style has thrived at Fair Grounds, which has the longest stretch in the United States. Against this field, however, Howard is worried the distance might not be far enough.

"If he's going to stamp himself as a good horse, you're not going to see it until he goes a mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter, I don't think," Howard said.

Gradepoint, by A.P. Indy, has straight pasterns, which no doubt contributed to his being shunned at auction. He also has a quarter crack on the inside of his left rear hoof, but that is a months-old injury. From the knees up, he is a strong-bodied colt.

His stablemate, Breakaway, has better conformation, but is small by comparison. Breakaway is 2 for 2 at Fair Grounds after losing the first five starts of his career.

Wimbledon lost the first four starts of his career, then finally broke through with an eight-length romp against maidens at Santa Anita on Feb. 8. He always has been held in high regard by his trainer, Bob Baffert.

The other California invader, Borrego, was second in his last start to Master David in Santa Anita's Sham Stakes. Borrego and Wimbledon flew here Wednesday.

Pollard's Vision, a one-eyed colt named for Seabiscuit's rider, Red Pollard, beat first-level allowance runners at Gulfstream on Feb. 8. That was his first try around two turns.

"He's a fighter. He's as tough as they come," said Michael "Whitey" McCarthy, the Pletcher assistant who brought Pollard's Vision and Shaniko here.

Shaniko was beaten as the favorite in a first-level allowance at Gulfstream on Feb. 14 after winning her maiden.

Stolen Time is making his first start since November, when he was second to Sir Oscar in the Jack Price Juvenile at Calder. He is adding blinkers for this race.

Shadowland was second to Fire Slam in the Lecomte in only his third lifetime start.

Indian War Dance won a first-level allowance on Aqueduct's inner track last month in his first start since being claimed by Richard Dutrow Jr.

Nightlifeatbigblue was third to Gradepoint in the Risen Star.