12/03/2003 12:00AM

Moving on after Mineshaft

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NEW ORLEANS - A horse occupies the first stall outside trainer Neil Howard's barn office at Fair Grounds. But it is not The Horse.

When Howard made his winter move from Churchill to Fair Grounds last year, he brought with him an entry-level allowance winner named Mineshaft, who took up residence in that first stall and spent the Fair Grounds meet blossoming into the finest handicap horse in the country - just as Howard quietly had hinted he would last December.

Now Mineshaft is gone, retired without a final flourish that would have come from running in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Mineshaft had come up with a manageable ankle problem in midsummer, but in October, after his win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the small chip in his ankle had broken free and was floating loose in the joint, and that was it.

"Yeah, there's a void without him right now," Howard conceded. "When you get the horse of a lifetime, how could you not miss him when he's gone? But we're all lucky back here because we love what we do. You keep working to develop the horses you have."

There might not be a New Orleans Handicap winner in his barn, but Howard, as usual, has horses with promise. One of them, Political Risk, could make his first start after a long layoff sometime later this month.

This time last year, Political Risk was an unraced 2-year-old turning heads during morning training, and though he is bred to run long, Political Risk won his debut here at six furlongs. An easy win in a Keeneland allowance route had Political Risk set for stakes competition, but the colt chipped a knee, had surgery, and only began breezing in October. Wednesday, Political Risk worked four furlongs in 49.20 seconds, and Howard said he's only about two works away from racing.

Slated for stakes competition here is the 2-year-old filly Sheer Luck, a disappointing seventh last Saturday in the Grade 2 Golden Rod. "We're not giving up on her off that one race," Howard said. Howard also has an unraced full sister to Secret Status who will soon make her debut.

The stable is far from empty. But that doesn't mean there's not a hole.

Bonapaw on verge of retirement

For three seasons, Bonapaw took the identical twin brothers Dennis and Jimmy Richard on a wild ride. When Bonapaw first hit peak form in the spring of 2001, they drove to the spa town of Hot Springs, Ark., bet hand over fist on Bonapaw at 5-1 in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, and painted the town that night.

This happened over and over, from Iowa to New York to Texas. But the run has ended. Jimmy Richard died of cancer last spring. And now Dennis Richard is pondering Bonapaw's future. Bonapaw finished fifth, beaten 16 lengths, in the Thanksgiving Handicap, and clearly is not the same dominant horse who once ruled the local sprint division.

"He's getting old and arthritic, just like me," said the 61-year-old Richard, who owns tire shops in the New Orleans area.

Bonapaw cost $6,500 as a yearling of 1996. He is almost certainly the best horse ever produced by his sire, Sabona. An owner could go through thousands of similar animals and never get one with anything close to Bonapaw's talent. Richard knows this. A part of him wants to retire Bonapaw. Another part can't let go of the glory days.

"I don't want to abuse the old boy," Richard said. "The vet said we can go on with him without hurting him. If he could run good in an allowance race, we could look at another little stake with him. If not, we'll retire him.

"It gets to be a little depressing," he said. "I've got some other horses, but it's just not the same. They're not Bonapaw."

Freefourinternet pointing for turf stakes here

Freefourinternet, beaten less than four lengths when he finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Mile, is pointing for Fair Grounds turf stakes early next year and could tune up in an allowance race here later this month, said his trainer, Joan Scott.

Scott, who took out a trainer's license a year ago, has trained Freefourinternet since early summer, and guided him to a win in the Grade 2 Kelso on Oct. 4 at Belmont, his only victory this season. Even so, Freefourinternet has earned nearly $400,000 this year.

Freefourinternet finished third by a neck in the Explosive Bid Handicap here last March, and that would figure to be his long-term goal this meet. Freefourinternet lost training time when he was put in a Fasig-Tipton auction in early November, but he failed to sell and quickly returned to Scott's barn.

"He missed some time, but he's very happy right now," Scott said.

Asmussen may have two in Tenacious

Anywhere from six to 11 horses could be entered in the $60,000 Tenacious Handicap, Saturday's feature and the first local step toward the New Orleans Handicap.

Steve Asmussen, Fair Grounds's leading trainer with six wins in week one, may start two horses in the Tenacious: Easyfromthegitgo, who nearly won the Louisiana Derby two seasons ago, and Spanish Empire, winner of two straight allowance races. Other possible starters are Almuhathir, Baker Road, Crowned King, G.W.'s Skippie, Jimmy Z, Mercenary, Seainsky, Skate Away, and Zydeco Affair.

Grand Council turns heads in training race

One very obvious horse to watch emerged during Wednesday training races here - Grand Council, who easily won the second of four races while under stout restraint from start to finish. A Pyramid Peak colt trained by Ronny Werner, Grand Council broke very sharply and led all the way, galloping out strongly after running five furlongs in 1:00.80.

The first-race winner, Tell Tale, also showed ability for trainer Chris Speckert, while Dyna Girl - perhaps a future route horse - finished well and galloped out strongly after checking in third in the third race for trainer Al Stall.