02/10/2002 12:00AM

Mardi Gras turns up the heat

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NEW ORLEANS - With the city of New Orleans heating to a fever pitch on Mardi Gras Day, one of the best stakes races of the season heats up Fair Grounds' special Tuesday card. Local turf stars Northcote Road and Where's Taylor face off in the $75,000 Mardi Gras Handicap, a race that also marks the turf debut of the talented colt Griffinite.

The head-to-head matchup between Northcote Road and Where's Taylor is intriguing. As an unknown two years ago, Where's Taylor finished second in the Explosive Bid Handicap of 2000, while Northcote Road filled out that position last year. Both horses love the local grass, but there is no stronger horse for a course than Northcote Road, who has won seven of 11 Fair Grounds turf races and finished second three other times. Those seven wins make up more than half of his career total of 12.

The 7-year-old Northcote Road, owned by Charles Duncker, has been guided through a 50-start career by the steady hand of trainer Blackie Huffman.

You will never get Huffman to talk up one of his horses, but he exudes quiet confidence about Northcote Road, who won an off-the-turf stakes Jan. 5 in his seasonal bow. Asked if he planned on working Northcote Road again after a Feb. 2 five-furlong breeze, Huffman shook his head.

"He's ready," he said. "I'm happy with where he's at."

Northcote Road has tactical speed, and jockey Larry Melancon will not have to work to stay in contact with the front-running Where's Taylor.

When the stretchout sprinter Bonapaw took a pass on the race, Where's Taylor became the likely controlling speed of the 7 1/2-furlong Mardi Gras, depending on how eager Griffinite is to engage the early pace.

Where's Taylor's trainer, Hilary Pridham, is as fresh to the position of head trainer as Huffman is seasoned. Pridham, an Englishwoman who has worked with Noel Hickey and Mike Stidham, went out on her own last fall with Where's Taylor the star of her show.

A lanky gelding by the obscure Florida stallion Absent Russian, Where's Taylor has evolved into one of the more consistent turf milers in the Midwest since Barry Golden purchased him privately two winters ago. His works since an easy win against an overmatched allowance field here Dec. 30 have been steady and strong, and Where's Taylor will pose a formidable target with jockey Craig Perret.

Trainer Dick Lundy has worked with plenty of top turf horses in his career, and his decision to experiment on grass with Griffinite must be respected. Griffinite was wiped out at the start of his last race, the Grade 1 Malibu, and has posted a pair of recent bullet works over the Fair Grounds main track.