01/31/2004 12:00AM

Mystery Giver three-peats

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NEW ORLEANS - Even the people closest to him sometimes find Mystery Giver difficult to understand, but one thing is obvious: Mystery Giver thrives at Fair Grounds. For the third year in a row, Mystery Giver won the , this time beating Skate Away by a neck.

Mystery Giver doesn't eat with gusto, and his manners in his stall border on rude. In fact, Richie Scherer, his trainer, thinks Mystery Giver simply hates being in his Fair Grounds barn. Out on the track, it's a different story.

Asked if he felt confident going into Saturday's race, Scherer said, "Not at all." But jockey Robby Albarado had a different take. Mystery Giver was coming off a two-month layoff, and Albarado had ridden him in recent dirt works designed to set him up for this race.

"When he trains well on dirt, that's how he runs," Albarado said.

Albarado had another insight. He felt Skate Away was the horse to beat Saturday, and designed his strategy around that belief. As Warleigh and Gin and Sin set tepid fractions on a yielding turf course - 24.94 seconds for a quarter-mile and 50.12 for a half - Skate Away raced in the clear and in sixth, with Mystery Giver a couple lengths behind. When Gerard Melancon let Skate Away gear up for his run on the far turn, Albarado followed, and as Skate Away coasted to the lead at the top of the stretch, Mystery Giver went after him. Both horses finished strongly, as did Great Bloom in third, but Mystery Giver edged clear in the final yards.

The second choice, Mystery Giver paid $7 to win, running about a 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.77. Warleigh, the favorite, finished sixth.

Mystery Giver has given Scherer a huge boost the last three seasons. Bred and owned by the Block family of Illinois, Mystery Giver is trained most of the year by Chris Block, but Block winters in Chicago, and Mystery Giver comes to New Orleans with Scherer.

"Thank goodness for the Blocks," Scherer said. "They're amazing. They don't tell me anything to do with the horse. They have a lot of trust in me. That's hard to do with the best horse in your stable."