11/29/2001 12:00AM

Melancon is king of hill


NEW ORLEANS - For opening week, at least, Gerard Melancon is king of the Fair Grounds jockeys. Melancon, a four-time riding champion at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La., won eight races here last week, one more than Eddie Martin, his nearest pursuer. A 34-year-old Louisiana native, Melancon has shed the traces of a checkered past, and has raised his game to a new level.

Melancon's improved standing has coincided with a change in agents: Longtime Fair Grounds agent Jerry Harrison took over Melancon's book at about this time last year. Then, Harrison took Melancon to Lone Star Park to ride first call

for trainer Mike Stidham, and Melancon has been getting mounts for nationally known outfits ever since.

"It was my first time leaving home [in a long time], and it was hard at first," Melancon said. "But I had an opportunity I had to take."

At this meet he has ridden winners for the likes of trainers Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss, and on opening day he rode Bonapaw, the best sprinter on the grounds, to victory in the Thanksgiving Day Handicap.

It is a long way from a darker time in Melancon's life, when he battled problems with substance abuse. But Melancon says he has been sober for more than 12 years now, and though the arrival here of jockeys Robby Albarado and Donnie Meche will make things tougher, Melancon seems certain to improve on his sixth-place finish in the Fair Grounds standings last season, when he rode 45 winners.

Brothers unveils new-look barn

Kentucky-based trainer Frankie Brothers, who won the Louisiana Derby two years ago with Mighty, has assembled his stable at Fair Grounds for the winter, and his operation has a slightly different look this year. Brothers, the longtime private trainer for Claiborne Farm, has become the semi-private trainer for Joe Allbritton's Lazy Lane Farms, but Brothers said he continues to train eight to 10 horses for Claiborne. "I hope to train for them for as long as possible," he said Wednesday.

In addition to Claiborne's stock and 10 horses for Allbritton, Brothers has about 12 other horses for outside clients, including graded stakes-placed filly Cunning Play for owner Diane Perkins. But he doesn't anticipate a big winter here. "I think we'll be quiet over the winter," said Brothers, "but I think things will get a little more active in the spring."

Right now, the most promising young horse in Brothers's barn is Robe, a Claiborne-owned 2-year-old colt by Pulpit who won a two-turn maiden race by more than three lengths Nov. 7 at Churchill.

E Z Glory in stakes debut Sunday?

Sunday's $75,000 Tenacious Handicap for older horses at 1 1/16 miles could be the stakes debut of the promising colt E Z Glory, one of a handful of horses under consideration for the race. The Tenacious is likely to include the graded stakes-placed Valhol, who would be the name performer in a field also likely to include Castlewood, Trion Georgia, and Dixieland Diamond. On Wednesday, Valhol, who has not raced since the spring, worked a half-mile here in 48 seconds for trainer Dallas Keen.

E Z Glory, a late-developing Cox's Ridge colt, has been brought along slowly by trainer Carl Bowman, but after three straight wins this summer and fall, including an outstanding race Nov. 10 at Churchill, E Z Glory may be ready for stakes competition. If not, Bowman, who trained the top filly Lu Ravi until her retirement last year, has two others nominated to the Tenacious, Neon Shadow, and On Your Mark.

The Saturday stakes here is the $60,000 A.B. Leggio Handicap, a turf sprint for fillies and mares. Serena's Tune and the comebacking Cheryl P. head a list of eight probables for the Leggio.

The Smoothe Groove wins the day

There was not much doing in Wednesday's four training races - the racetrack was not playing fast, but the day's best time of 1:02.20 for five furlongs was fairly slow under any circumstances. Perhaps the most promising horse seen Wednesday morning was The Smoothe Groove, who won the first of the schooling heats by five lengths in a time of 1:02.60.

The Smoothe Groove's big edge is the fact she was bred in Louisiana and can be entered in a restricted statebred maiden race, something trainer Dale Angelle indicated he planned to do soon. The Smoothe Groove, a daughter of the young sire Golden Gear and a half-sister to the stakes-placed Michelle's Crown, showed good gate speed and was quickly clear of her field on Wednesday.