04/22/2003 11:00PM

Mineshaft continues climb


LEXINGTON, Ky. - When racing fans name the best handicap horses in training in North America, the familiar suspects are: Medaglia d'Oro, Congaree, Milwaukee Brew, Harlan's Holiday, and Volponi.

Mineshaft has not crashed that elite category - not yet, anyway. Mineshaft has done almost everything trainer Neil Howard has asked of him by winning four of five starts since being imported last fall from England, but he hasn't faced the best around.

That may soon change. Mineshaft will take his final step toward the Grade 1 Pimlico Special when he runs Friday as the heavy favorite in the closing-day feature at Keeneland, the $100,000 Ben Ali Stakes at 1 1/8 miles.

Mineshaft, a 4-year-old colt by A.P. Indy, enters the Grade 3 Ben Ali following a 3 1/2-length victory in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap, a race that stamped Mineshaft as perhaps the top older horse in the Midwest and led Howard to plot a schedule featuring major races.

Howard said he needed to run Mineshaft between the March 2 New Orleans 'Cap and the May 16 Pimlico Special.

"I gave him just a little freshening after his last win, but he's been back in full-blown training mode for more than a month now," Howard said earlier this week at his Churchill Downs training base. "He's really doing well, so we're hoping to go up to Keeneland and get a nice, solid race in him."

Mineshaft is owned by a partnership headed by Howard's longtime client Will Farish. Following seven mediocre attempts racing on grass in England, Mineshaft was sent to Howard, who saddled the colt for his winning United States debut in late November at Churchill. Since then, Mineshaft has lost just once, finishing second at Fair Grounds in the Feb. 9 Whirlaway, a prep for the New Orleans 'Cap.

Seven opponents will line up against Mineshaft and regular rider Robby Albarado in the Ben Ali, a race that dates to 1937. Crafty Shaw probably is the most dangerous opponent in a field that also includes Malmaison, American Style, Metatron, X Country, Horrible Evening, and El Gran Papa.

The Ben Ali is co-featured with a Grade 1 steeplechase, the $175,000 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings. Ten races are on the closing-day card.