11/28/2006 12:00AM

Native son saddles Island Warrior

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The trainer Dallas Stewart, a native of the New Orleans area, starts his first horse of the new Fair Grounds meet in Thursday's eighth race. That horse, a first-timer in a two-turn turf race, is just another unknown quantity, but in Thursday's featured ninth race, Stewart has the favorite and horse to beat, a promising 3-year-old named Island Warrior.

Island Warrior has the outside post in an eight-horse field, and the talent to make his own luck regardless of post or trip in this six-furlong second-level allowance race. He has won 2 of 6 starts, never finished worse than third, and should have a great chance to get Team Stewart a win on its first day of participation at this Fair Grounds meet.

Stewart said Tuesday that he'd finished shifting his operation from Churchill Downs to winter quarters in New Orleans. Often a player in 3-year-old stakes races after the first of the year, Stewart has older horses such as Storm Surge, Clock Stopper, and Hot Storm ready to roll, as well as such younger talents as Great Discovery and Floral Park set to run at the meet.

"I'm there, all settled in, and I'm gonna get after it," Stewart said.

Island Warrior, an Overbrook Farm homebred by Cherokee Run, could prove to be one of Stewart's better horses for the winter. He started his career last May, and after a second-place finish first time out, he won a Churchill maiden race by more than eight lengths. He won his first allowance try, ran third to the talented Latent Heat at Saratoga, then was a close second Sept. 30 in the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Sprint over Turfway Park's synthetic racing surface. The day before the Breeders' Cup at Churchill, Island Warrior dueled on a hot pace going one mile - the farthest he'd ever raced - and while no match for a closing longshot winner named Prayer Service, he held second in a 12-horse field.

Island Warrior could be pushed by Grand Escape, who also exits a second-place finish in a Churchill second-level allowance race. Late-running, rail-drawn Catquit, off since last April, will be hoping a pace duel between Peerless Tee and Mr. Meso draws the pace-pressers like Grand Escape and Island Warrior up close to hot early fractions. Even if that scenario plays out, Island Warrior still might not wilt.