09/19/2001 11:00PM

Northcote Road class on the grass

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BOSSIER CITY, La. - The company Northcote Road has kept this season sets him apart from his 13 rivals in the $100,000 Louisiana Downs Handicap on Saturday.

Northcote Road is the 119-pound highweight for the 1 1/16-mile turf race, which has also drawn Maysville Slew, who was nosed out in a photo in this race a year ago. Also in the field is Nat's Big Party, who has won two regional stakes in his last three starts, including the $100,000 Independence Breeders' Cup Turf at Louisiana Downs.

Northcote Road, a 6-year-old gelding who is the class of the field with $589,180 in earnings, is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. At Fair Grounds this spring, Northcote Road won the $75,000 Mardi Gras Handicap, then stepped up and finished second, beaten a neck, against a deep field of turf horses in the Grade 2, $600,000 Explosive Bid Handicap.

Upon returning to his home base of Kentucky, he ran sixth, beaten two lengths, in the Grade 2 Maker's Mark Mile in April, and seventh, beaten less than four lengths by top-class turf runners White Heart, King Cugat, and Brahms, in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in May. In his most recent start, he finished fourth behind Royal Strand, Chorwon, and Thesauraus in an allowance race at Churchill Downs on June 14.

"He got beat fair and square," said Northcote Road's trainer, Blackie Huffman. "It was a pretty solid field of horses."

After the allowance race, Huffman elected to give Northcote Road three months off. "It was hot and humid so we backed off him for the summer," said Huffman.Northcote Road has worked sharply for his return, and blew out three furlongs in 35 seconds at Churchill Downs on Thursday before being put on a plane to Bossier City. "I feel confident in his fitness," said Huffman, who has given the mount to Ron Ardoin.

If Northcote Road is vulnerable off the layoff, Maysville Slew can take advantage. In his return from a more than four-month layoff last out, he ran second in a 7 1/2-furlong turf allowance at Remington Park. Trainer C.R. Trout expects Maysville Slew, a winner of $472,250, to move forward in his second start back.