02/20/2004 1:00AM

'Mountain' back to defend Taylor title


NEW ORLEANS - Mountain General is back from a leg injury just in time to defend his title in Sunday's Taylor's Special Handicap. Six months have passed since his last race, and seven opponents stand in Mountain General's path in this six-furlong sprint stakes.

has the talent to overcome the obstacles. He set a Fair Grounds track record in the Thanksgiving Handicap last season and is trained by Steve Asmussen, whose 48 wins (and counting) are more than twice the total of the second-place trainer at this meet.

Mountain General broke a splint bone late last summer, and his second-place finish to Private Horde in the Grade 2 Vanderbilt at Saratoga was his most recent start. Some broken splint bones require surgical removal; this one only needed time to heal. Mountain General got plenty of rest and was legged up for his comeback by his owner, Asmussen's father Keith, at the family's El Primero training center near El Paso, Texas.

Mountain General's best races come when he rates five to 10 lengths behind a fast pace and lets fly a big late run - exactly how he set the track record. There is pace in the Taylor's Special to set up Mountain General's kick, and his recent workouts are, by Asmussen's standards, unusually fast. Mountain General, ridden for the first time by Shane Sellers, looks ready from his rail post.

Outside Mountain General is Captain Thunder, whose career-best performance a month ago netted him a second to Badge of Silver in a Fair Grounds allowance race. Then comes Aloha Bold, winner of the $60,000 Colonel Power here in his last start, and Out of My Way, who has recently alternated troubled trips with disappointing efforts. Premier Performer, Spinning Tales, Ole Rebel, and Cat Genius round out the field in post position order.

Ole Rebel and Cat Genius, along with Aloha Bold, have the best chance of beating Mountain General. Ole Rebel brought down the unbeaten Cloud Walker - his younger brother - with a powerful late kick in a Jan. 31 allowance race here, and in nine Fair Grounds starts, he has finished worse than second just once. Two starts ago, Cat Genius ran his best race since ripping part of his hoof off in a starting gate accident late in 2002. But his last race, a seventh-place finish in a $40,000 Delta Downs stakes, clouded his form.

Asked about Cat Genius earlier this week, his trainer, Tom Amoss, shrugged. At some point, even those closest to these fast horses wonder what to expect.