01/22/2004 1:00AM

Polish Rifle starts journey


For Fair Grounds 3-year-olds with Triple Crown aspirations, the season starts in earnest Saturday with the Grade 3, $100,000 Lecomte Stakes. Kind of.

Saintly Look, Easyfromthegitgo, and Sam Lord's Castle won the last three Lecomtes, and you will not find those names etched in Kentucky Derby lore. At one mile, and with a short stretch run, the Lecomte is more a launchpad for horses with Louisiana Derby aspirations than a true Kentucky Derby prep race.

Seven were entered in this Lecomte, but , one of the top two choices, is battling a quarter crack and might not start. His trainer, David Carroll, said Fire Slam's condition had improved Thursday morning, but that his Lecomte status remained uncertain.

Carroll is putting on a brave face, but smiles come easier for Steve Asmussen, trainer of Polish Rifle, the Lecomte's likely favorite. , second to the highly regarded Tapit in the Laurel Futurity, will be making his first start for Asmussen, having been privately purchased last year by William Heiligbrodt and Stonerside Stable. While his best win came in the restricted Maryland Million Nursery, Polish Rifle has impressed Asmussen, who believes this Lecomte could have wider implications than usual.

"We hope the Lecomte is the first step on our journey," Asmussen said. "He's a very good 3-year-old prospect."

Only in the Laurel Futurity has Polish Rifle tried two turns, and Asmussen likes the distance progression in Fair Grounds' series of 3-year-old stakes. He plans to move Polish Rifle up the ladder here, from the Lecomte to the Risen Star and - if the colt is good enough - the Louisiana Derby. To bring Polish Rifle into Saturday's race in adequate condition, Asmussen gave the horse a stiff six-furlong gate work in 1:11.60 on Jan. 5.

"That was to get him to a mile in the Lecomte, and not have the race hit him too hard," Asmussen said. "This isn't his derby. It's a good spot to two-turn 3-year-olds the first start of the year. He'd probably appreciate running the whole stretch, but we don't want him to do all that much right now."

Fire Slam would be a worthy rival, but even if he makes the race, he won't be at 100 percent. That could leave Oaklawn shipper Shadowland as the main competition. Shadowland has started his career with two wins - one in England, one at Turfway Park - and has plenty of upside as well as decent early speed. He, Polish Rifle, and Two Down Automatic should track the pace of Crafty Friend, with America Alive and Bogangles racing from farther behind.