02/21/2002 12:00AM

Maltese Superb won't be alone

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NEW ORLEANS - In two of the last three meets, the top-class racemare Lu Ravi, now retired, used a win in the Chou Croute Handicap as a springboard to the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap. And though it is the premier route stakes for older fillies and mares at Fair Grounds, the Chou Croute typically serves just that function: a step to bigger and better things.

This year, it can be seen as the ultimate goal, rather than a means to an end, for the 10 fillies who were entered. A stakes win by any of them would greatly enhance resumes dotted with high-end allowance and the occasional low-end stakes score.

"It's a wide-open race," said trainer Dick Lundy, who has entered Instinct in the race. "You have to take a shot."

Lu Ravi's owner, Yushio Fujita, and trainer, Carl Bowman, have a horse for this year's Chou Croute too, but their 5-year-old Maltese Superb is far less accomplished than Lu Ravi was at this stage of her career. Nevertheless, it is possible she might be the most talented horse in the Chou Croute, and Maltese Superb was assigned top weight of 117 in the 1 1/16-mile Chou Croute.

Maltese Superb, who began her career in Japan, hasn't raced since Nov. 5, when she finished second, beaten less than a length, to the graded stakes winner De Bertie. But Bowman is at his most dangerous with horses coming back from layoffs, and Maltese Superb has put in a series of solid workouts for her return, including seven furlongs in a strong 1:25.60 on Feb. 14.

The problem for Maltese Superb could be pace. Maltese Superb always is around the early lead, but as many as four other fillies in Saturday's race have similar running styles.

Descapate, who makes her stakes debut, is one of them, and since she is saddled with post 10 is likely to gun for the early lead. Our Majestic Cat, up from first-level allowance company, and Mimi's Tizzy, who benefited from setting a slow pace winning an off-the-turf stakes last time out, are the other confirmed front-runners, and both could melt away early enough for Maltese Superb to survive a pressured pace.

Momentous used to be a pure speed horse, but she has developed rating ability for trainer Henry Cochran and has been posting exceptionally strong workouts here for this race. If she will relax early for jockey Larry Melacon, Momentous might get a nice inside stalking trip, while Instinct, who moves up on a muddy track, could get a similar trip from post 2.

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