01/17/2003 12:00AM

Mineshaft's potential untapped


NEW ORLEANS - Discreet Hero lost by inches to Rock Slide six weeks ago at Fair Grounds in the Tenacious Handicap. Now, he has to deal with Rock Slide's younger brother.

Mineshaft, a full brother to Rock Slide, makes his United States stakes debut in Sunday's $75,000 Diplomat Way Handicap. He and Learned, another newcomer to stakes racing, could make the Diplomat Way just as tough for Discreet Hero as Rock Slide made the Tenacious.

Seven were entered in the 1 1/16-mile Diplomat Way, the third in a series of two-turn handicap races that culminates in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap. Rebridled, Freon Flier, and - to a slightly lesser extent - Fighting Indians, are longshots. Private Ryan, a rare local starter for trainer Peter Walder, invades from south Florida after racing with moderate success last season in mid-Atlantic stakes.

Discreet Hero raced valiantly and ran fast in the Dec. 8 Tenacious. Rock Slide bounded away to an easy lead, but Discreet Hero engaged him at the quarter-pole and the two raced head and head for the length of the stretch. Rock Slide never yielded and Discreet Hero lost by a nose.

The defeat probably was the finest race of Discreet Hero's career. Discreet Hero, a 5-year-old owned by B. Wayne Hughes and trained by Al Stall, was gelded last September and now may be living up to the ability he showed as a 3-year-old.

"He's tried as hard as a horse could try," Stall said. Discreet Hero is more focused now, and the strong form he brought to the Tenacious has held up in his morning training.

Rock Slide is a talented horse, but Mineshaft could turn out to be his equal. The brothers are by A.P. Indy out of Prospectors Delite.

Mineshaft is just starting to come around. Now 4, Mineshaft started his career in England, but when it seemed like turf might be holding him back, Mineshaft was shipped back to the U.S. last fall to try dirt racing. The surface switch has worked. Since returning, Mineshaft has won two allowance races impressively - one at Churchill and one here.

"He has all the attributes of a good horse, but we don't know yet," trainer Neil Howard said.

Learned has won 4 of 6 starts but spent much of 2002 recovering from a leg injury. An impressive allowance winner last November, he missed a start here in the Louisiana Handicap after getting sick. Trainer Bobby Barnett tried to get Learned into a turf allowance race on Friday, but turned to the Diplomat Way when that race failed to fill.

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