02/28/2004 1:00AM

No more easy leads for Grifter

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NEW ORLEANS - Trainer Bret Calhoun keeps entering for $40,000. The horse keeps winning. And no one has yet put in a claim.

It has been a nice little run for Calhoun, Grifter, and owner Carl Moore. Grifter, whose best days seemed to be behind him in 2002 and 2003, has won three straight races, thriving in Fair Grounds grass sprints. Here he is in another one: Fair Grounds's featured ninth race on Monday.

Grifter, one of eight horses entered in the 5 1/2-furlong grass sprint, runs once again for a $40,000 tag. But his luck might have run out. This optional claiming race - also open to second-level allowance horses - looks at least slightly deeper than the last couple in which Grifter ran. Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that Grifter will be permitted to dawdle on the lead, as he did to the tune of a 47.60-second opening half-mile last time out.

Stanislas took back behind Grifter last time, but has the speed to stay with him if jockey Shane Sellers chooses to do so. And Jaded Heat, a new player in the second-level allowance division, has enough early foot to keep Grifter honest.

If the pace stays fair, closers G.W.'s Deputy and Smooth as Silver both have strong chances. G.W.'s Deputy's best race this meet was a nose loss Dec. 19. Coming off the turn that day, G.W.'s Deputy stumbled and almost went down, but picked himself up at the three-sixteenths pole and nearly won anyway. There were no such dramatics in his last two starts - just two more narrow losses.

Smooth as Silver has been privately purchased since his last start, a blowout win Feb. 2 in an entry-level dirt allowance. Smooth as Silver got a perfect setup that day, rallying into a taxing pace, but this gelding clearly has come around the last couple months, and doesn't figure to back up now for new trainer Tom Amoss. Smooth as Silver might be better on dirt than turf, but he has a win, a second, and three thirds from nine grass starts.

They will still have to get past Grifter, who took a short lead at boxcar odds in midstretch of the 2001 Louisiana Derby. He was trained then by Amoss, who will try to run him down today with a horse trained last out by Eddie Johnston. To complete the circle, Johnston has a horse of his own for this race, Cypress Cove.