03/12/2002 1:00AM

O'brien: Good ex-maiden or bad?


NEW ORLEANS - Bettors deemed Mr. O'brien a standout in his career debut, sending him off as the favorite, but trainer Michael Dickinson is taking a more cautious approach.

"There's the old saying that they all look good breaking their maiden," Dickinson said. "But you can get good maidens and bad maidens."

The public will get another chance to hammer Mr. O'brien at the windows Thursday, and Dickinson can further assess the colt's quality when Mr. O'brien faces winners for the first time in a first-level turf allowance race at about one mile.

It will be interesting to see if Mr. O'brien can run back to his Feb. 4 effort, when he contested a moderate early pace, then ran away from nine rivals in the stretch to win by more than five lengths. "Who was in that field?" Dickinson asked rhetorically. The answer, of course, is eight other maidens. Now, Mr. O'brien faces seven other winners.

Among them is Rehearsal Hall, who also won his career debut, though that was nearly a year ago in a six-furlong maiden stakes at Leicester, an English racetrack. Rehearsal Hall was regarded highly enough that his connections threw him into the Group 3 Coventry Stakes in his second start, and he finished 13th of 20. But Rehearsal Hall rebounded later in the summer to run well in a pair of lesser races, then was exported to the U.S. Now trained by Niall O'Callaghan, Rehearsal Hall made his first start in this country Jan. 31, starting slowly but finishing well to be third behind the promising Mystic Salse and Royalton, who was second in a stakes here earlier this meet.

On turf, a win by any of the others would come as at least a mild surprise. If rain forces a move to the main track, trainer Eddie Kenneally has found a good spot for recent claim No Trouble. In a Feb. 4 dirt allowance race, No Trouble finished fourth behind three horses more proven on the main track than anything he would meet in this field.

Ntombi to Keeneland

Dickinson said that the 3-year-old filly Ntombi would make her next start in the Appalachian Stakes on April 19 at Keeneland. Ntombi was an impressive two-time turf winner at the Fair Grounds meet, though she has returned to Dickinson's Tapeta Farm to train up to her stakes debut.

Ntombi, who is by Quiet American out of Aletta Maria, is a half-sister to Cetewayo, who won the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup on Feb. 16 at age 8.

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