05/14/2003 12:00AM

Mineshaft ready for his close-up

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BALTIMORE - Mineshaft has twice won graded stakes. He is a son of A.P. Indy, and is out of a mare by Mr. Prospector. He has all the ingredients to make a top sire. One key element remains to be filled on his rŽsumŽ, though. He has yet to race in, or win, a Grade 1 stakes race, but he will get that chance on Friday, when he is expected to go off the favorite against eight rivals in the $600,000 Pimlico Special.

Just how important is a Grade 1 win?

"It's paramount," his trainer, Neil Howard, said Wednesday morning at Pimlico Race Course.

Mineshaft heads into the Pimlico Special in the best form of his career. He has won five times in six starts since being repatriated from Great Britain, and comes off a dominating, nine-length victory in Keeneland's Ben Ali Handicap on April 25.

"That was a great race for him," Howard said. "He wasn't running against the kind of horses he'll run against here, but he got a lot out of it."

The Pimlico Special, run at the same unusual 1 3/16-mile distance as Saturday's Preakness Stakes, is back on the Pimlico stakes calendar after a one-year hiatus. It also was moved to the day before the Preakness, so it shares the card with the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, instead of being run on the Saturday between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

"I like it being the same weekend as the Preakness," said John Ward Jr., the trainer of Hero's Tribute, who is the probable second choice to Mineshaft. "It's like a racing festival."

The Special is the 11th race on a 12-race card that begins at 12:45 p.m. Eastern time.

Mineshaft carries top weight of 121 pounds, one more than Snake Mountain and five more than Hero's Tribute. The assignment is a testament to his rising status among the nation's older male runners. Mineshaft won just one time in seven starts while racing on turf in Great Britain, but Will Farish, who bred and owns the colt in a partnership, and John Gosden, who trained him there, both told Howard they thought Mineshaft would move up on dirt.

"Gosden and Mr. Farish felt that way," Howard said. "Gosden said he wasn't very happy on turf."

Mineshaft's lone loss in this country came Feb. 9 in the Whirlaway Handicap at Fair Grounds, in which he finished second to Balto Star, one of his rivals in the Special. Balto Star was second in Aqueduct's Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap in his last start April 5.

Snake Mountain had won five straight races before finishing fourth as the favorite in the Excelsior. He is reunited with jockey Jose Santos, who won three races on Snake Mountain last fall.

Hero's Tribute had a productive winter in Florida, where he finished second in the Donn Handicap before winning the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap by four lengths on March 29. Ward said his wife, Donna, has been instrumental with turning Hero's Tribute into a more consistent runner at age 5.

"Donna handles this horse," Ward said. "He and I were having a personality conflict. Donna has got him thinking he's macho. He was kind of timid with me. A horse would look at him, and he'd back away. Donna has really worked on his confidence."

Ward said Hero's Tribute did not run at Keeneland in order to point for the Special.

"He needs a Grade 1 win, it's $400,000 to the winner, and the timing was good," Ward said.

Western Pride ships in from California, where he returned from an 11-month layoff and captured the San Bernardino Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita on April 5. He made a striking appearance while grazing Wednesday morning, with huge dapples shining through his dark bay coat.