03/01/2004 12:00AM

New Orleans 'Cap roughly run from start to finish

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NEW ORLEANS - It's arguable which will be the more indelible image from Sunday's New Orleans Handicap: The dogfight in the stretch between Peace Rules and Saint Liam, or the brutal run into the first turn that cost much of the field a real chance to win.

By Tuesday, the several horses who shipped in for the race, including the victorious Peace Rules, will have returned to their home bases. And surprisingly, all participants appear to have come out of the race in satisfactory physical condition. Even Sir Cherokee, who took the worst of things on the first turn, apparently escaped serious injury.

Monday, Fair Grounds was still abuzz with talk of the roughly run race, which featured a two-tiered inquiry and a claim of foul by Edgar Prado, who alleged Jerry Bailey and Peace Rules had interfered with him and Saint Liam in the stretch. The top two finishers exchanged bumps in the stretch, but the early incident was the subject of greater scrutiny.

Peace Rules came out running and took the lead going into the turn. Behind him, the other seven horses bunched up tightly - too tightly. Ten Most Wanted and Pat Day were on the outside, packing Sir Cherokee and Terry Thompson into a tight spot. Saint Liam was in the middle, with Spanish Empire and Funny Cide stuck inside, followed by Seattle Fitz and Comic Truth. Only the last two avoided trouble.

This is what ensued: Bailey, on Peace Rules, steered his horse toward the rail. He was clear of the field, but barely. Just then, Prado appeared to maneuver toward the outside with Saint Liam, who was full of run. The combination of Peace Rules coming in and Saint Liam heading out, just as the horses began to cut the corner, caused Saint Liam to bear outward. Saint Liam crashed into Sir Cherokee, who then ran into Ten Most Wanted, and the crowd's voice rose as those two went careening toward the middle of the track. The chain reaction also caused Spanish Empire and Funny Cide to bump and steady closer to the inside.

Robby Albarado was riding Comic Truth behind the scrum. "They were going into the turn real tight," he said. "There was really no room for anybody to take a step out. There was no release for anyone anywhere."

Thompson, the rider of Sir Cherokee, said Saint Liam "ducked out into me into the first turn, and it caused a chain reaction. We were pretty tight going into that turn, and there was nothing we could do about it."

Neither Thompson nor Mike Tomlinson, Sir Cherokee's trainer, claimed foul. But Tomlinson said he felt "there should have been some repercussion for what happened in the race."

But Fair Grounds stewards elected not to change the order of finish. The stewards said they believed too many factors unfolded simultaneously for a single horse and rider to be held accountable.

Ten Most Wanted took less of a blow than Sir Cherokee but still had his chances significantly compromised. Ten Most Wanted never got back into the race and finished fifth.

"He's fine. We'll draw a line through that one and go on to the next one," said trainer Wally Dollase on Monday. "When he gets nailed like that, maybe he gets discouraged."

Dollase said Ten Most Wanted could next start in the Oaklawn Park Handicap. Plans are uncertain for Peace Rules, though trainer Bobby Frankel said he will keep Peace Rules separate from his other handicap star, Medaglia d'Oro.