03/24/2010 12:00AM

Mister Marti Gras trying big step up


NEW ORLEANS - Mister Marti Gras, a longshot in the Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby on Saturday, was not named for trainer Neil Pessin, but he should have been. Pessin, with his unwavering good humor and constant smile, is the go-to guy for all things New Orleans, especially restaurants, where he admittedly has done plenty of research.

Pessin is based here during the winter, and in Kentucky in the summer. While at Fair Grounds, he trains his own horses, plus a handful who are sent south for the meet by Chicago-based trainer Chris Block.

Mister Marti Gras was second in his debut at Hawthorne for Block in November, and has made two starts here at Fair Grounds for Pessin. He was second in a strong maiden race when he went two turns for the first time on Jan. 25, then defeated maidens when placed on the turf for the first time on Feb. 21.

This is admittedly a huge step for Mister Marti Gras, but Pessin is hoping his one-run style will overcome his lack of experience.

"In his two races here, we just took him back and made one run," Pessin said at his barn on Wednesday morning. "I really liked his race last time because he came up the rail, and most of the horses who come up the rail on the turf here get bogged down. It's usually better to be farther out on the course.

"He's going from turf to dirt, and I think he's probably a little bit better on dirt. His first race here was supposed to be on the turf, but it rained and got moved to the main track. He wasn't ready to run. I thought he'd need a race. He swung out at the quarter pole and made one big run."

Mister Marti Gras hit the front, but then was run down in the final strides.

James Graham rode Mister Marti Gras in his last two starts, but Graham will ride Ron the Greek in the Louisiana Derby, so Shaun Bridgmohan has picked up the mount.

Graham making title bid

Heading into the final weekend, trainer Steve Assmussen has already locked up his ninth Fair Grounds training title in last 10 years. But the jockey's race has tightened up, with Graham's eight-win weekend catapulting him into second place, three wins behind Asmussen's go-to jockey, Bridgmohan.

With three days of racing left, Graham has 68 wins and $2,173,386 in earnings. The earning mark puts him nearly $100,000 ahead of Bridgmohan.

If Graham catches Bridgmohan in the wins column, it would be a first jockey title for Graham, who has twice finished second at the Fair Grounds.

But Graham, age 30, isn't letting his familiar second place in the jockey standings distract him from the successes of the season.

"I've been a bridesmaid many times before, and I have no complaints," said Graham. "I am keeping good company, and as long as I make it back safe on Sunday evening it's a blessing. I'm just glad to be out there doing what I love to do."

Graham's eight-win weekend took his lifetime North American win total to 992, and he admits to more interest in the 1,000-win milestone than in the jockeys' title.

"It's an outstanding achievement for me considering when I came over from Ireland I had only one winner and a holiday visa," said Graham. "But I don't know how I will feel when I get a thousand, because I haven't gotten there. I'm just going to let the music play itself. If it happens at the Fair Grounds, great, and if not, it will happen."

The impressive meet for Graham has been highlighted by a win in the Grade 3 Lecomte on Ron the Greek, his mount for Saturday's Louisiana Derby.

Graham's ride on Ron the Greek was dramatic, as they closed from last to win by a length and a half.

"Ron the Greek has been the most outstanding victory, and I think he's got a big shot in the Louisiana Derby on Saturday," said Graham.

With the season winding down, and Graham and his family preparing to leave New Orleans, one of the places they call home, Graham was philosophical.

"It's been a great season," said Graham. "Sad to be leaving, but it's time to move on for another year."

- additional reporting by Abram Himelstein