02/10/2005 1:00AM

Looking for a leg up

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Lone Star Park
Despite five wins, including the Lone Star Juvenile, Storm Surge is unlikely to go favored.

NEW ORLEANS - The 11 3-year-olds entered in Saturday's Grade 3 at Fair Grounds are out to prove they belong in the top echelon of the division. For most, a victory will ensure at least a month of stardom and a start in the March 12 Louisiana Derby. Several have such potential that a victory will put them on the short list of Kentucky Derby contenders.

The top three wagering choices are likely to be Harlington, Rush Bay, and Storm Surge, all of whom are individual entrants in this weekend's Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

The 1 1/16-mile Risen Star is the centerpiece of Louisiana Derby Preview Day. The undercard includes the Grade 3 Silverbulletday for 3-year-old fillies, the Grade 3 Mineshaft for older horses, and the $100,000 Taylor's Special Handicap, a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint for 4-year-olds and up. The four races are linked by a $250,000-guaranteed pick four.

Oddly enough, the horse with the most class, earnings, and experience in the field is unlikely to be favored. Storm Surge, an Overbrook Farm homebred by Storm Cat out of the Mr. Prospector mare Especially, is a Grade 3 winner off his learn-as-you-go score in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, where jockey Robby Albarado took the normally precocious runner off the pace and taught him to rate behind horses. His final time of 1:39.34 in the one-mile Lecomte translated to only an 81 Beyer Speed Figure, which will scare off some bettors.

But Storm Surge may be even better than his 5-for-8 record indicates. He won his debut at Churchill Downs and jumped immediately into stakes company, finishing second in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor. Trainer Dallas Stewart shipped him to Saratoga, where he handled an allowance field but ran poorly in the Grade 1 Hopeful.

Stewart gave Storm Surge two months off, and he returned with an impressive score in the $100,000 Lone Star Juvenile on Breeders' Cup weekend. He appeared to bounce off that effort in his next start, a troubled-trip sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He has been perfect at Fair Grounds, winning the Sugar Bowl and Lecomte.

"He's got a lot of heart, and he's very good right now," said Stewart.

If Storm Surge wins the Risen Star, his Lecomte speed figure will be all but forgotten.

Harlington ships in from Florida glittering with class and championship connections. The undefeated son of Unbridled and Serena's Song brought $2.8 million in the auction ring, is trained by Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, and will be ridden by Eclipse winner John Velazquez.

Harlington won his debut at Aqueduct in November, getting up at a mile after a poor break. Last month, he steamrolled an allowance field at Gulfstream Park going 1 1/8 miles.

Rush Bay, by Cozzene out of the Deputy Minister mare Seoul, has the pedigree and the look of a classic horse. He will be making his first start since finishing second in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in November.

"People around here know this horse's family is bred to run a distance of ground," said his trainer, Tom Amoss.

Rush Bay progressed gradually as a 2-year-old, running third in his debut in an Arlington Park sprint, finishing second when stretched out to 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland, and then trouncing maidens at the same distance over the Churchill Downs main track. After rallying strongly for second in the Kentucky Jockey Club, Rush Bay was given time off by Amoss to prepare him for the spring classics. Rush Bay punctuated a long series of workouts with a bullet 1:13.60 for six furlongs last week.

Several others in the race can improve their standing with a big performance. Smooth Bid battled with Storm Surge through a thrilling stretch duel in the Lecomte, missing by a neck. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, has another horse in the race, Real Dandy, from whom he is expecting even bigger things.

Nick Zito ships in Electric Light, who is coming off a stakes win at Tampa Bay Downs. In from the West Coast are Iced Out, second in the Grade 2 San Rafael; Golden Gate Derby winner Buzzards Bay; the speedy Silent Bid; and graded-stakes-placed Scipion.

Louisiana Derby Preview Day

RACE, GRADEPURSECONDITIONDISTANCE
Taylor's Special$100,0004YO & Up5 1/2 furlongs (T)
Silverbulletday, G3150,0003YO F1 1/16 miles
Mineshaft, G3100,0004YO & Up1 1/16 miles
Risen Star, G3150,0003YO1 1/16 miles

* $250,000 guaranteed pick four begins with the Taylor's Special at 2:55 p.m. Central