02/29/2004 12:00AM

Peace Rules takes rough New Orleans

Fair Grounds
Peace Rules (right) and Saint Liam grind on each other as they battle to the wire in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds on Sunday. Peace Rules prevailed by a head and survived a stewards' inquiry and rider's objection for the win.

NEW ORLEANS - Peace Rules is built from equal parts speed and heart. He needed both Sunday to win the Grade 2, $500,000 by a head over Saint Liam, becoming only the third horse to win the Louisiana Derby and New Orleans Handicap, the annual fixtures at this meet.

Peace Rules burst from the gate and took an early lead, and his speed sent him clear while the rest of the field played bumper cars into the first turn. Saint Liam was directly involved in the snarl, but emerged from the pack to take on Peace Rules coming into the stretch, and the two-horse battle was tremendous. The pair bumped several times, and Saint Liam put his head in front somewhere in mid-stretch, but Peace Rules and jockey Jerry Bailey came back along the inside during a gritty final 50 yards.

"To be honest with you, I thought he was beat at the eighth pole," said Bobby Frankel, who trains Peace Rules for the owner Edmund Gann.

Peace Rules, bet heavily late, paid $9.20 to win, and his time of 1:48.61 for one and one-eighth miles was less than a second off the track record. Funny Cide finished third, followed by Seattle Fitz - the narrow favorite - Ten Most Wanted, Sir Cherokee, Spanish Empire, and Comic Truth.

Besides the winner, all but Seattle Fitz and Comic Truth had serious trouble. The horses had barely crossed the finish when an inquiry concerning the run into the first turn and the stretch was announced, and Prado claimed foul against Bailey and Peace Rules. No action was taken on either count.

Prado rode Peace Rules to his Louisiana Derby win, but today, he thought the horse and Bailey had cost him victory.

"When it's that close, you have to claim (foul)," Prado said.

But Bailey said, "He came in on me. And he's got the bigger horse."

The stretch bumping was nothing compared to the first turn. About 100 yards into the race, with the pack behind Peace Rules tightly bunched, everything unraveled. Pat Day, on Ten Most Wanted, tried to hold his position on the far outside, while Edgar Prado sought to guide Saint Liam up outside Peace Rules. But Saint Liam bore sharply out, smacking Sir Cherokee sideways and into Ten Most Wanted, who also was knocked off stride.

Mike Tomlinson, Sir Cherokee's trainer, said his horse had cut his hind leg. And Ten Most Wanted had been taken out of the Breeders' Cup Classic at the same point in the race.

"If I can ever get around the first turn, we'll be in great shape," Day said.

There also was trouble for Funny Cide and Spanish Empire, but Peace Rules stayed clean, and his first quarter-mile was luxury, a tepid 23.60 seconds. At 47.06 seconds, the half-mile split was swift for this track, but Peace Rules was in the clear, and Frankel said, "I think the pace was in his comfort zone."

Few horses can sustain such speed for nine furlongs on this track. Peace Rules and Saint Liam passed a mile together in 1:35.48, faster than the track record, and still were fighting.

The trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. shipped Saint Liam here weeks ago to prepare for the biggest race of his life. He had nothing but praise for his horse. "The only way I could be happier is if we would have won," Dutrow said.

Funny Cide was a solid third, coming back in the stretch to finish ahead of Seattle Fitz. "I think he's coming back around," trainer Barclay Tagg said. "Jose (Santos) said he never stopped digging in."

Frankel always is cool after big wins. There have been so many now. But he said the stretch run Sunday stirred him. "I like winning. When I stop liking it, I shouldn't be doing this any longer."