03/18/2003 12:00AM

'No Jacket' vs. absentees

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NEW ORLEANS - Taking a stand against No Jacket Required in Fair Grounds's featured race Thursday may require a leap of faith. There are two opponents who may be better, but between them they have just one start in the last 18 months.

No Jacket Required probably will be favored in the ninth race, which is for second-level allowance horses or $40,000 claimers at about 5 1/2 furlongs on turf. Though he steps up in class after a first-level allowance win in his last start, No Jacket Required presents seven rivals with a formidable target.

Part of owner Richard Englander's far-flung stable, No Jacket Required is trained here by Scott Hansen, who has made a success of his first winter at Fair Grounds, with 9 wins from 48 starters. No Jacket Required raced in East Coast starter-allowance races for most of last year, but failed to win in 13 starts and came to Fair Grounds last fall after finishing sixth in a $10,000 claiming race at Philadelphia Park. He quickly perked up when Hansen returned him to turf, just missing in a $17,500 turf claimer at a mile here Dec. 27. He moved up to another level when Hansen turned him back to grass sprints. No Jacket Required won a $10,000 starter allowance by two lengths, and on Feb. 24 beat a decent allowance field by a 1 1/4 lengths with a strong late burst.

The horses with the best chance to upset him Thursday all exit layoffs, some longer than others. Lunar Bounty hasn't started since Jan. 16, when he was third in a turf sprint while racing one condition higher than this race. Mosayter and Swept Clean have even bigger holes in their form.

But with greater risk could come greater rewards. Mosayter has started only once since September 2001, when he still was racing in England, but his sixth-place finish in a Saratoga allowance race last summer came with serious trouble, and Mosayter certainly has the ability to contend in this spot.

So does Swept Clean, who is unraced since Oct. 5, 2001, but won consecutive high-class allowance races before he injured a leg.

"The main thing is this horse has worked every six days or so and has been doing well," said trainer Mike Stidham. "When you can get a steady work pattern and works in company, you feel comfortable that they're ready to run."

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