01/01/2004 12:00AM

Look for a two-horse duel down the stretch

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NEW ORLEANS - The Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap, co-featured on a strong program Saturday at Fair Grounds, drew a deep field of 11 horses, but the race might turn out to be quite simple. to the rear, and those two should hook up in the stretch run of the race, which is at about 1 1/16 miles on grass.

Not that Warleigh and Freefourinternet tower over the others. Act of War has a tremendous late kick when it is timed right. Great Bloom has won two straight since a private purchase sent him to the barn of trainer Leo Gabriel in Chicago last fall. And Gretchen's Star, the owner-trainer Ron Isbell's pride, joy, and only steady racehorse, had a rebirth last fall, beating graded stakes winner Mystery Giver at Keeneland.

But Warleigh and Freefourinternet are probably better than the rest. Steve Asmussen saw Warleigh cruise to a win in a top-level turf claimer July 28 at Saratoga, and imagined the stakes races he might win in Louisiana and Texas. Three weeks later, Asmussen claimed Warleigh for himself, plunking down $100,000.

"It was a lot of money, but I thought that would be the kind of horse to have for this part of the country," Asmussen said.

He was right. Warleigh won the $100,000 Louisiana Downs Handicap by more than eight lengths, prompting a sale to one of Asmussen's clients, Ro Parra. Since then, Warleigh has won the $40,000 Alliance Handicap and finished second in the Grade 3 River City Handicap at Churchill, but Asmussen worries Warleigh's front-end running style might clash with the Fair Grounds turf course.

"He might not be a fit for the course," Asmussen said. "I know he's been training very well, and if we don't get an excellent race out of him, he won't be running on this course anymore."

Freefourinternet has already run an excellent race at Fair Grounds, but it came on dirt, not turf. A Dec. 14 prep race for the Bradley was rained off grass, but Freefourinternet stayed in anyway and turned in an amazing performance. A distant ninth at the half-mile pole, Freefourinternet charged home with a wide, sustained rally and won by a length.

Jockey Robby Albarado, who has a return call Saturday, raved about the effort, calling Freefourinternet a candidate for the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap at the end of this meet. But the unfolding of the Bradley shouldn't look anything like Freefourinter-net's dirt win, where a swift, contested early pace set the race up for him. He could need an even stronger finish to catch Warleigh, if no other pace horse keeps him honest on the lead.