02/24/2004 1:00AM

Peace Rules joins lineup


NEW ORLEANS - With Fat Tuesday over, the tourists begin leaving New Orleans in droves. Now, the horses are coming.

Top older horses from both coasts and Oaklawn Park are due to arrive at Fair Grounds this week. Their goal: Sunday's $500,000 New Orleans Handicap.

A win in the 2003 New Orleans Handicap pushed Mineshaft onto the national stage, and 11 months later Mineshaft was named Horse of the Year, but this year's edition of the race may be the strongest ever. As of Tuesday, nine horses were considered likely starters, and the prospective field looks spectacular.

A flight from Florida on Wednesday is expected to include the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner, Funny Cide. But the fastest horse on that plane might be Seattle Fitz, who finished second, 3 3/4 lengths in front of Funny Cide in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 7 at Gulfstream. Also expected on the Florida flight is Country Be Gold, a distant sixth in the Donn. Saint Liam, another Florida-based horse, has trained at Fair Grounds most of this month. Saint Liam flew through a five-furlong breeze Sunday in 58.60 seconds.

The Californians come Thursday, headed by Grade 1 winners Ten Most Wanted and Peace Rules. Last March, Peace Rules shipped here to win the Louisiana Derby, a race in which Funny Cide finished third. Ten Most Wanted came to Louisiana in September to win the Grade 2 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Ten Most Wanted, who might be favored in the nine-furlong handicap, last ran in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he had trouble on the first turn and wound up a disappointing eighth.

Peace Rules also comes off two sub-par performances, a 13th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Mile and a fourth-place finish as the even-money favorite in the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 24. Peace Rules "was a short horse" in that race, according to trainer Bobby Frankel.

"I think he's going to run his race this time," Frankel said.

Sir Cherokee, winner of three straight starts, is scheduled to travel from Oaklawn Park by van on Thursday. For horses such as him and the two local hopefuls, Comic Truth and Spanish Empire, the depth of quality in the New Orleans Handicap is surprisingly daunting.

"We've got a lot of horse to lead over there, but we're not proven on that level," said Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Spanish Empire.