01/18/2002 12:00AM

Opportunity knocks for a newcomer

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NEW ORLEANS - With the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap looming on the horizon, what's the point of pushing a horse too hard this weekend? So, it seems, goes the thinking of horsemen with top older handicappers in their barn. Sunday's $75,000 Diplomat Way Handicap at Fair Grounds drew a competitive field of nine, but none of the entrants, at this point in their career, would rank among the best handicappers in the region.

That sort of horse is more likely to show up three weeks from now in the Whirlaway Handicap, which offers a $125,000 purse and serves as a direct prep for the March 3 New Orleans Handicap. Valhol and San Pedro, winners of the first two handicap races at this meet, are sitting out the 1 1/16-mile Diplomat Way to wait for the Whirlaway.

What it all means is that the door is open for a newcomer to step forward in the Diplomat Way, and there is no horse in the race with more up side than Drewman, a lightly raced 4-year-old brimming with potential. A gorgeous son of the late Unbridled, Drewman won his maiden here last spring and passed quickly through his first two allowance conditions on the Kentucky circuit before finishing third to the exceptionally talented Touch Tone in the $250,000 Iowa Derby on July 6.

Drewman is the star of the show in Hal Williams's three-horse stable. After the Iowa Derby, Williams gave Drewman, a late-maturing horse, several months off to recover from the stress of training and racing. He rejoined the stable this fall and made a comeback start in a Dec. 29 sprint allowance here, a race designed to set Drewman up for this stakes.

Drewman, who has been working exceptionally well since his comeback, makes his first start in blinkers, which were on for a bullet half-mile breeze Tuesday. He breaks from the rail and will be ridden for the first time by Larry Melancon.

Projecting favoritism in the Diplomat Way is almost impossible. What's more certain is the presence of plenty of pace. Kentucky invader Crafty Shaw, Castlewood, Freon Flier, and Frazee's Folly all are front-running types who should ensure the closers an honest early tempo. E Z Glory, a late-runner, was bet down to 4-5 in her Dec. 2 Tenacious Handicap here, but turned in a dull performance and finished a non-threatening fourth. E Z Glory showed a powerful turn of foot winning allowance races last summer.

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