01/18/2011 4:26PM

McKeever enters Fair Grounds stakes on a roll

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NEW ORLEANS – Fair Grounds followers should remember the grass horse named Diamond Tycoon, who exploded onto the local scene during the winter of 2008-2009 with three consecutive Fair Grounds turf wins, the last of which came in the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Breeders’ Cup Handicap. Diamond Tycoon, who now is a Chilean sire, suffered a career-ending injury before he could contest the $500,000 Mervin Muniz later in the meet, but he already had given Andrew McKeever his only stakes win in a training career that began in 2005.

McKeever could notch stakes No. 2 on Saturday, when Daisy Devine is scheduled to contest the $100,000 Silverbulletday. Daisy Devine was 40-1 when she won an entry-level dirt-route allowance race here Dec. 30, and one race earlier she had been in a $30,000 maiden claimer. But someone who hopped aboard the McKeever train at the start of the current Fair Grounds will probably not be getting off before the Silverbulletday. That’s because McKeever, 44, is in the midst of the hottest streak of his career. Through last week’s racing, he had sent 12 horses out at Fair Grounds, and seven of them had won. That’s one more victory than McKeever’s stable compiled during the first seven seasons he ran horses at Fair Grounds, and more winners than McKeever had in seven different entire calendar years. In fact, those recent seven winners represent almost 6 percent of McKeever’s career win total, 119.

“I had a good meet at Ellis once,” McKeever said. “Nothing like this.”

McKeever, who grew up in racing around The Curragh in Ireland, has a dozen or so horses in New Orleans and a half-dozen more at Keeneland for the winter. He has split time between New Orleans and Lexington recently, but was in town to watch Daisy Devine work five furlongs in 1:02.40 on Monday at Fair Grounds. The drill and Daisy Devine’s general comportment of late have given McKeever confidence to run her back in the Silverbulletday just more than three weeks after her surprisingly big allowance-race win.

“The Sheets say I shouldn’t run her, that she’s going to bounce, but my instinct says yes,” McKeever said.

James Graham liked what he felt in the Monday breeze, McKeever said, and rides Daisy Devine on Saturday. A daughter of Kafwain, Daisy Devine was purchased at auction for just $5,500 by her owner, James Miller.

“I knew she’d be tough in a $30,000 maiden when she came down here, but I didn’t know she’d be this good,” said McKeever.

Three-year-old program slow to start

It was surprising to see just five horses, including a once-started maiden-claiming sprint winner, entered on Monday for Saturday’s $100,000 Lecomte Stakes. Even if things had broken better for Fair Grounds (Arlington-Washington Futurity winner Major Gain was only ruled out by trainer Wayne Catalano on Monday; intended starter Herp was not able to make the race), the field would have been fairly short. But upon closer consideration, a compact field should have been expected.

There has been only a shadowy outline of a program for 3-year-old males of 2011 this winter in New Orleans. The 2010-2011 meet began on Nov. 25, but through this past Monday, Fair Grounds has run only three entry-level main-track allowance races, two of which were sprints. Justin Phillip won the only two-turn allowance for colts and geldings born in 2008 staged so far this season, and he is the morning-line favorite for the Lecomte.

Moreover, there has been only a pair of two-turn dirt maiden races for younger males during the meet. Wilkinson, one of the Lecomte quintet, won the first of them, while Don Dulce, who wasn’t entered in the Lecomte, won a Dec. 30 two-turn dirt maiden.

With the Churchill Downs fall meet, which ends in late November, focused so heavily on 2-year-old racing, the Fair Grounds open 2-year-old division is bound to get off to a slow start. But it’s become apparent that many of the better Churchill 2-year-old performers have wound up elsewhere this winter, a trend that starts with Steve Asmussen’s decision to open a Southern California division this winter. Tapizar, a smashing Santa Anita stakes winner for Asmussen last weekend, would in years past have been wintering at Fair Grounds, and Asmussen also took most of his better 3-year-olds out West this year.

Add to that Oaklawn’s increasingly popular 3-year-old stakes program (the Smarty Jones was contested Monday) and Delta Downs’s decision to move the $250,000 Jean Laffitte for 3-year-olds to Jan. 14 this year, and what do you get? A five-horse Lecomte.

Gomez to ride Apart

Garrett Gomez, Blame’s rider throughout 2010, will keep up his relationship with trainer Al Stall and owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider in New Orleans this weekend. Gomez was named to ride Apart in the Louisiana Handicap and Aide in the Silverbulletday on Saturday. Gomez also has stakes mounts on Sheer Beauty in the Leggio Memorial and on Wilkinson in the Lecomte.