02/05/2008 1:00AM

Mineshaft a fitting spot for Grasshopper

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Street Sense (left) took the Travers, but Grasshopper proved he could run with top horses.

NEW ORLEANS - Like any prudent horseman, Neil Howard prefers not to compare his own horses. Somewhere in his craggy noggin, no doubt, Howard has formed concrete ideas about how one stakes horse stacks up against another. That doesn't mean he is going to trumpet them to the world.

But it is hard not to mentally match Grasshopper and Mineshaft. Mineshaft was the last really top-class older horse Howard campaigned at Fair Grounds, and he won the New Orleans Handicap on the way to being named Horse of the Year in 2003. Given the potential he showed as a 3-year-old last season, Grasshopper also has a chance to rise to the top of the handicap ranks, and it only twines the two horses tighter that Grasshopper makes his first start of the season Saturday at Fair Grounds in the Mineshaft Handicap.

"One way I can compare him to Mineshaft," Howard said Tuesday morning in his Fair Grounds barn office. "He seems genuine. He's a real hard-knocking, hard-trying horse."

Howard, one of the more astute horsemen around, harbors no delusions of grandeur. Had Curlin's connections decided to race in the Mineshaft and New Orleans handicaps, Grasshopper would have gone elsewhere.

"I think that everyone is at the behest of Curlin," said Howard, "After that, I think we're in the mix."

Grasshopper is a 4-year-old by Dixie Union out of the Mr. Prospector mare Grass Skirt, making him a full brother to the promising early-season 3-year-old Turf War. When Grasshopper won a two-turn maiden race at Churchill in November 2006 at Churchill, he, too, was expected by many to be an early-season 3-year-old prospect. Instead, Grasshopper was injured and didn't race again until last June - which is basically how his co-breeder and co-owner Will Farish had it pegged.

"Mr. Farish, he beat me to the punch on that one," Howard said. "He said from the start that this horse was going to be a [good] 4-year-old, and he was right."

Still, it was what Grasshopper did late last summer at age 3 that has many people eagerly anticipating his 4-year-old debut. In typical Howard fashion, Grasshopper progressed gradually, winning his six-furlong comeback start, then finishing third at seven furlongs before winning easily at 1 1/8 miles in a second-level Saratoga allowance race.

That performance earned Grasshopper a shot in the Travers, which, besides Street Sense, was coming up somewhat light for a race of its caliber. Grasshopper and Robby Albarado made the lead in the Travers, set an even pace, and kept on running when Street Sense came calling in upper stretch. Street Sense eventually pushed past to win by a half-length, but it had been a superior effort from a previously untested young horse.

"I always had felt good about him, but believe me, I didn't see that coming," Howard said.

That was late August, the time when talk turns to the Breeders' Cup, and Grasshopper at least got mentions as a horse potentially good enough for the Classic. Howard and Farish chose a path of lesser resistance, going to the Super Derby on Sept. 22 at Louisiana Downs - where Grasshopper was run down late by Going Ballistic as the 3-10 favorite.

"Take nothing away from the winner there, but we felt the heat and the stress of the Travers, that might have taken more of a toll than we'd realized," Howard said.

Since Howard listens to his horses, what came next was no surprise: a lengthy freshening. Grasshopper made it back to the track late last year at Fair Grounds, and he has progressed steadily from that point forward. Tuesday, he came off the track after a routine gallop with his dark bay coat glistening, neck bowed, and looking the classic picture of a long-winded route horse.

"He put weight on over the freshening, and he filled out over his back and his hip, which is really what he needed to do," Howard said.

Grasshopper's work pattern here has been airtight, with drills every five, six, or seven days before an eight-day break between a major six-furlong breeze on Jan. 25 and a solid five-eighths last Sunday. Howard said Grasshopper has not worked with another horse all winter, an effort to keep Grasshopper from coming too far, too fast early in the year.

"It's only February," Howard said.

And February is not the month one points for with a horse that might be really good - a horse like Grasshopper.