03/09/2005 12:00AM

Mystery horse gets top billing

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Hoofprints Inc.
High Limit will make just his third start, and first for trainer Bobby Frankel, in Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

NEW ORLEANS - High Limit has run only twice, both times at Delaware. He has yet to compete in a stakes race, and has not raced in more than four months.

Yet when entries were taken Wednesday for the Grade 2, $600,000 on Saturday at Fair Grounds, Mike Diliberto, the linemaker at Fair Grounds, made High Limit the 5-2 favorite in the field of nine.

"His first two starts were very impressive, and Bobby Frankel proved with Peace Rules that he can take a horse, improve him, and win the Louisiana Derby," Diliberto said. "He's got a lot of upside."

Who is this horse? He's a mystery, even to Frankel, for whom High Limit will make his first start Saturday.

"We don't know how good he is. We'll know more after the race," Frankel said. "He's fit enough to be close to his best."

Frankel said he knew so little of High Limit that it wasn't until last week that he looked up his past performances and noticed High Limit had led from start to finish in both his races.

"I didn't realize he goes to the lead," Frankel said.

He goes to the lead, and improves his position. High Limit won his debut by 10 3/4 lengths going six furlongs on Oct. 4. Twenty days later, he stretched out to one mile and beat a first-level allowance field by 7 3/4 lengths. Both starts came for trainer Tony Dutrow. Following that race, High Limit's owners, Gary and Mary West, sent him to Frankel with the hope of going in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 18.

But High Limit grabbed a quarter and skipped the race.

"He didn't get to race out there," said Ben Glass, the racing manager for the Wests. "After he caught the quarter, Bobby sent him to Florida to let the quarter heal. Bobby thought it was best to stop on him, then put him in training on Eastern surfaces."

High Limit has been in steady training for the past two months at Palm Meadows, where twice during February he recorded works that were the best of the morning. But even Glass admits that he, the Wests, and Frankel are going into uncharted territory Saturday.

"He's being thrown to the lion's den," Glass said. "Everybody wants to get to the first Saturday in May, so you've got to test the waters. Bobby said let's put him in, see how he does. Nobody knows if he's ready for this off two races, or if he's ready for this kind of campaign. Nobody knows. He's kind of a mystery horse to us, too."

Glass said High Limit has developed physically over the winter.

"Three weeks ago I saw him for the first time since December 1," Glass said. "He's really matured a lot. He's got a beautiful shoulder and hindquarters. He looks much more advanced. He doesn't look like a baby anymore."

A good performance in the Louisiana Derby is paramount if High Limit is to remain in line for the on May 7. He has yet to win any money in a graded stakes, and if the Derby field has more than 20 entrants - as it did one year ago - graded stakes earnings are the first tie-breaker to determine the field.

That is the main reason Frankel decided to bypass a comeback race against allowance company. He also had considered last week's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream before deciding on the Louisiana Derby.

"The Fountain of Youth is a mile and an eighth," said Frankel. "This race is a mile and a sixteenth. And this race doesn't look like that tough a race to me."

High Limit drew post 3 in the field of nine. Ramon Dominguez, who rode High Limit to both his victories at Delaware, is back aboard. The rest of the field, from the rail out, is Sort It Out, with Robby Albarado aboard; Storm Surge, Jerry Bailey; Real Dandy, Donnie Meche; Indy Storm, Larry Melancon; Wallstreet Scandal, Rafael Bejarano; Scipion, Gary Stevens; Vicarage, John Velazquez; and Kansas City Boy, Brice Blanc.

Sort It Out's entry was a surprise. Last week, trainer Bob Baffert said Sort It Out needed a rest after being sold privately. But Baffert said he reversed course following a sharp five-furlong workout Monday at Santa Anita.

Kansas City Boy's post was considered ideal by trainer Ken McPeek, who said he believes Kansas City Boy does his best racing outside horses. McPeek scratched Kansas City Boy from last week's Fountain of Youth after he drew an inside post.

The Louisiana Derby is the sixth race on an 11-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. It is the first leg of an all-stakes pick four and will be televised live by ESPN2, beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern.

In other Derby developments:

* Sweet Catomine is expected to head a small field in the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks on Sunday. If she runs well there, she could subsequently face males in the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

* The other significant race for 3-year-olds this weekend is the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows on Saturday. Stellar Magic, winner of the San Mateo Mile, is expected to face Big Top Cat and Uncle Denny.

* Bailey has a prior commitment at Fair Grounds on March 19, so Baffert will use Stevens if Roman Ruler runs in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita or Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct that day.

* With Mike Smith committed to Giacomo for the San Felipe, trainer David Hofmans has secured Rene Douglas to replace Smith on Golden Shine.

WHO'S HOT: Magna Graduate, who won the Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park, and Noble Causeway, who won an allowance race at Gulfstream, used victories Saturday to propel themselves onto the Derby Watch list. Noble Causeway is 30-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Magna Graduate is 50-1. Afleet Alex, following his victory in the Mountain Valley at Oaklawn, is now the co-second choice, at 8-1, after being 10-1 a week ago.

WHO'S NOT: Because of illness, both Fusaichi Rock Star and Proud Accolade were dropped from the list. Spanish Chestnut floated up to 50-1 from last week's 30-1 on Watchmaker's line after his third-place finish in the Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita.

ON THE BUBBLE: Kansas City Boy, who was second in Gulfstream's Holy Bull Stakes, and Sort It Out, the Whirlaway Stakes winner at Aqueduct, both could move into the top 25 with excellent performances in Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. Also knocking on the door is Sam Davis Stakes winner Andromeda's Hero, yet another from the deep barn of trainer Nick Zito.