01/19/2003 1:00AM

Mineshaft captures Diplomat Way

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NEW ORLEANS - Mineshaft and Learned, both impressive in allowance races, looked like they should be stakes horses. Sunday's Diplomat Way Handicap at Fair Grounds proved they are.

Mineshaft took the lead three furlongs from the finish and barely held off an astounding late rally from Learned to win the $75,000 Diplomat Way by a nose. His win gave two Fair Grounds handicap races to trainer Neil Howard and owners Will Farish, Temple Webber and James Elkins. Rock Slide, Mineshaft's older full brother, won the Tenacious Handicap here in December.

Mineshaft roused high expectations long before he'd run in a race. By A.P. Indy out of the great broodmare Prospectors Delite, Mineshaft is a beautiful dark bay who looked from the beginning like a runner. But because Farish is serving a stint as ambassador to England, Mineshaft began his career there as a turf horse. It didn't work out. His trainer, John Gosden, noticed Mineshaft seemed much more comfortable galloping on an all-weather training track than on grass, and it was decided Mineshaft would shift his career to the United Stakes.

He went to Howard's barn in Kentucky early last fall and won allowance races in his first two starts, one at Churchill Downs and one here. Sunday was the day his connections hoped Mineshaft would prove out. He did, but barely.

Freon Flier took the early lead and ran a slow first quarter in 24.28 seconds, with Discreet Hero and Mineshaft tracking. Discreet Hero, narrowly beaten by Rock Slide in the Tenacious, was the first to engage the leader, but jockey Robby Albarado quickly moved Mineshaft alongside Discreet Hero and the pace quickened on the backstretch. The half went in 47.55 seconds and the three quarters in a quick 1:11.78, as Discreet Hero and Mineshaft quickly went past Freon Flier.

Meanwhile, Learned was nowhere. Unraced since he won a Churchill allowance race in November, Learned lagged far behind the leaders even around the far turn. As Mineshaft started to separate himself from Discreet Hero at the stretch call, Learned still trailed by seven lengths. But he closed with huge strides down the center of the track, just failing to get to Mineshaft at the finish, with Discreet Hero clearly third.

"I just fell a little too far back," said jockey Calvin Borel. "Believe me, this horse is a runner."

Albarado said Mineshaft became distracted in the stretch, costing himself precious momentum, but had high praise for the colt. "He really just played down the stretch," Albarado said. "It's scary how good this colt is."

Mineshaft has been heavily bet in all his U.S. starts, and Sunday was no exception. He paid only $4 to win, while running one and a sixteenth miles in 1:43.88.