11/30/2006 1:00AM

Loose speed could test Patriot Act

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NEW ORLEANS - Patriot Act is the likely favorite in Saturday's $75,000 Tenacious Handicap at Fair Grounds, but to win he'll have to track down Tepexpan, the lone speed horse in the 1 1/16-mile race.

The race will be a long-delayed Fair Grounds debut for Patriot Act, a William S. Farish homebred trained by Neil Howard. The 4-year-old son of A.P. Indy arrived at Fair Grounds in late 2004 with a big reputation after finishing second in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland while still a maiden, but suffered an injury and never ran here that season. Howard has nursed Patriot Act along carefully and now appears to have him ready for a big effort.

Patriot Act will make the third start of his form cycle. He finished fifth in a Keeneland allowance sprint in October and won a second-level allowance race at Churchill going 1 1/16 miles Nov. 18.

"It's no secret that he's had a few interruptions throughout his career, but it looks like we've finally got it to the point where we've got him good and healthy," said Howard. "We brought him back this fall and sprinted him at Keeneland, which we know is not his game, but we wanted to kind of get him going. Then he came back and ran well in an allowance race at Churchill."

With that confidence-building victory under his belt, Patriot Act appears ready to make his first stakes start since the 2004 Breeders' Futurity.

"We had this race in mind at the beginning of the fall," said Howard. "We were hoping for the schedule to be a little different because we didn't want to run him back this quickly, in two weeks. But he's doing well and we hope to keep him going uninterrupted for a while."

Tepexpan should be able to take an uncontested lead, which makes him especially dangerous on this speed-favoring surface.

"That's going to be a concern," admitted Howard, because Patriot Act has "always been an off-the-pace kind of horse."

Another contender in the six-horse field is the Josie Carroll-trained Estevan, who is coming off a second-place finish in the $100,000 Labeeb at Woodbine, a race he won last year. The 5-year-old is the leading money winner in the field with $357,428.

Kid Grindstone, winner of the Grade 3 Fifth Season at Oaklawn on Arkansas Derby Day, is the marginal highweight at 117. Pressed has won over the course, taking the $73,000 Fair Grounds Sales Stakes in 2005. Salic Law, a grass specialist, is the outsider in the field.