Updated on 09/17/2011 9:53AM

Mineshaft really digs the dirt

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NEW ORLEANS - Each time he has raced in this country Mineshaft has stepped up to the plate, swung, and connected. If Mineshaft is going to be a truly good horse, he will have to do it again Sunday at Fair Grounds.

Mineshaft faces eight rivals in the $125,000 Whirlaway Handicap, his first start on dirt in a graded stakes. The Whirlaway earned

Grade 3 status this year, and it has attracted a field befitting its designation. From Florida comes the Grade 2 winner Balto Star, and from California, Lord Jim, Group 1-placed in Argentina. A solid local contingent includes graded stakes winners Connected and Bonapaw, the crack sprinter who will try to lead the Whirlaway from start to finish.

But no horse in the race has more raw talent than Mineshaft, who has won all three of his starts since being imported from England, where he raced without distinction for much of 2002. Mineshaft, a gorgeous bay colt with a first-class pedigree, has turned heads since he was a foal, but efforts to make him into a European grass horse failed.

Dirt racing in this country has been an entirely different story. Mineshaft won his maiden and an allowance race before he jumped to stakes and won the Diplomat Way here Jan. 19. The margin of victory was a nose, but Mineshaft lost his focus in midstretch and still has things to learn. Trainer Neil Howard has continued teaching, and said this week that Mineshaft "has been training so well it's kind of frightening.

"This should be a good step up for him," Howard said. "These are really good horses, but it's not like running in a Grade 1."

Mineshaft has natural speed, and by the backstretch in each of his last two starts had made the front. Howard hopes and believes that Mineshaft can settle early and kick in later, and Sunday he will have a chance to do so. Bonapaw has top-grade sprinter's speed, and though he will be geared down to preserve stamina, he and Balto Star, another confirmed front-runner, will ensure a quick pace. Others such as Deferred Comp and Lord Jim also will be close, and if Mineshaft relaxes for jockey Robby Albarado, he will get a good trip.

If not, Connected, the Whirlaway's best closer, will have a great setup. Connected returned to his best form and won the Jan. 2 Louisiana Handicap with a strong late run. Trainer David Carroll likes how Connected has done the last month, and with post 1 and the savvy rider Larry Melancon, Connected is the sleeper in this field.

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