12/13/2006 12:00AM

Mystery Giver older but still competitive

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Mystery Giver first raced on the Fair Grounds turf course on Dec. 22, 2001, five years ago. And five years is a long time in the career of a Thoroughbred racehorse. In those five years, Mystery Giver became one of the dominant Fair Grounds turf horses, winning three straight editions of the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup - including the 2002 race in his second-ever Fair Grounds grass start - and capturing the track's most important turf race, the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap in March 2004. But back home at Arlington Park, in the 2004 Arlington Million, he suffered an injury to a tendon in his hind leg that nearly ended his career.

Mystery Giver was off the map just about forever. He didn't race between August 2004 and last March, when he made a comeback after months of swimming, light training, and finally a heavier workload. And for two races, Mystery Giver looked finished. He was sixth by eight lengths at Tampa Bay Downs, then eighth by 18 lengths in a restricted Arlington stakes.

Trainer Chris Block and the Block family ownership team went so far as to drop Mystery Giver into a claimer - and they took heat for it. Some fans, some fellow horsemen, questioned the choice to run a family-owned graded stakes winner for a tag. But it is hard to question Block's methods now. Mystery Giver won for a $40,000 claiming price - a win Chris Block said was as satisfying as any in his career - finished third running for a $62,500 tag in an optional claimer, and then, on Oct. 26, delivered a performance in a Hawthorne race that looked like the Mystery Giver of old. Facing a stakes class group of allowance runners, Mystery Giver dominated, winning by more than three lengths with a powerhouse move on the turn and earning a 98 Beyer Speed Figure.

Now, the 8-year-old Mystery Giver is back at his favorite track in a stakes race, the $75,000 Buddy Diliberto Handicap on Saturday. Richie Scherer, who trains Mystery Giver during his New Orleans winters is, well, anxious.

"I am," Scherer said, "I'm nervous about it. His form's good. He looks fantastic. He's got good color, good weight on him."

But Mystery Giver, Scherer said, isn't the runaway train in the morning that he once was. Exercise rider and occasional jockey Armando Carranza rode him during training before the injury, and has been getting on him again this year. Mystery Giver still is no walk in the park to gallop, but Scherer said the horse isn't nearly as aggressive as he was the last time he trained at Fair Grounds.

"I don't know if he's just older and wiser," Scherer said. "You still need real good hand on him, he still starts off aggressive, but he comes back easier to you. He doesn't try to take it to the next level like he used to. Now he works [a half-mile] in 53, where before you had to tie him down to go [five furlongs] in a minute.

"Chris has reassured me that that's what he's been doing, but you remember the horse two years ago, and you wonder."

Mystery Giver faces another good group Saturday, though trainer Bobby Frankel said Rathor would be scratched from the race because of a quarter crack. The horse to beat is Purim, who jockey Robby Albarado appears to have chosen over Mystery Giver. Jesse Campbell has picked up the mount on Mystery Giver, who has compiled a 7-4-1-0 record on the Fair Grounds course.

Talamo looks like real deal

Those that might have thought Joe Talamo was a one-week wonder at the Fair Grounds meet need to think again. Talamo, a 16-year-old apprentice rider who has been race-riding for less than a year, has maintained his lead in the rider standings through three weeks of the meet.

Talamo, who jumped on top of the standings on opening day, when he won the meet's first race, has ridden 18 winners through Sunday, seven more than Lonnie and Donnie Meche, and Campbell.