01/29/2004 1:00AM

Political Risk taking jump into graded company


NEW ORLEANS - The taste of success still lingers, but now it is time for Neil Howard's barn to move forward. Less than a week after Mineshaft was named Horse of the Year, Political Risk will make his graded stakes debut Sunday in the Grade 3 Whirlaway Handicap at Fair Grounds.

Thursday morning, Howard confirmed Political Risk as a Whirlaway starter. There had been thoughts of entering him in an allowance race instead, but Political Risk has been training strongly, and Howard thinks this colt might be New Orleans Handicap material. If he is to make that race, Political Risk needs to run on Sunday.

Howard was engaged in this sort of long-term planning here last season, when he guided Mineshaft from a second-level allowance to an easy New Orleans Handicap win. Do not get the wrong idea: Political Risk is no Mineshaft.

"Seeing Mineshaft every day, the things he did - there won't be another one like him," Howard said.

But there are hopes for Political Risk, a son of A.P. Indy who was produced by a Grade 1-winning mare, Two Altazano. Political Risk showed talent here last season, but his schedule was thrown off when races failed to fill and he caught a virus.

Howard considered shooting for the Preakness or the Belmont after Political Risk won a Keeneland allowance race, but injuries took the colt out of action from April to last fall. Political Risk was second in a sprint comeback race, and he has gone forward since that start.

"Going into this I'd like to have had another start," Howard said. "Stretching out from a sprint to a Grade 3, that's tough."

Political Risk worked six furlongs in 1:15.60 on Jan. 19, his major work for this start. This is a true route horse who has gotten to run long in just one of four races. Howard cautioned that even if Political Risk runs well, he might not be ready to win on Sunday. But the year is long.

Busy schedule for Freefourinternet

One race every four weeks or six weeks - that's typical for stakes horses in this era. Freefourinternet is not a typical horse. He was entered in Saturday's Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup, and if he starts, it will be Freefourinternet's fourth race in about six weeks.

Turf, dirt - doesn't matter to this horse. Freefourinternet won an off-the-grass allowance here Dec. 14; was done in by a lack of pace in the Colonel Bradley Handicap, a turf race here Jan. 3; and finished second on dirt Jan. 17 in the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston.

"He seems to be doing really well, eating up and training well," said trainer Joan Scott. "Not that we'd want to space his races this close all the time. He'll get a breather after this. But he can do it."

Freefourinternet tends to save himself for the afternoon. Scott said that even when the horse trains well, he often gets bored with the morning routine. "You wouldn't want to train on him for two months," Scott said. "He starts thinking, 'What's the point of this?' after a little bit."

A test for Cloud Walker

Cloud Walker overpowered his opponents with brilliant speed the first two times he started. If he can win again Saturday, Cloud Walker will prove he has quality to go with his speed.

Cloud Walker jumps from an entry-level allowance into a money allowance in Saturday's eighth race. Last out, he beat a horse who had last run in a conditioned claiming race. This time, he faces horses that are close to stakes caliber.

Cloud Walker won his debut by seven lengths and the allowance race by the same margin. In the allowance, he ran six furlongs in 1:09.80, slightly faster than stakes horses a race later. Cloud Walker's trainer, Tom Amoss, thinks the 4-year-old colt needs more seasoning, and Amoss tried to get him into a second-level allowance scheduled for Thursday, but the race failed to fill.

"I hope he's not biting off too much," Amoss said. "You have to remember, he's only had two races in his life, and these are seasoned professionals. We think he's a special horse."

Polish Rifle headed for Risen Star

Despite a poor fifth-place finish in the Lecomte Stakes, Polish Rifle will make his next start in the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes, trainer Steve Asmussen said.

Making his first start since finishing second to Tapit in the Laurel Futurity, and his first start for Asmussen, Polish Rifle raced close to the pace in the Lecomte and faded in the stretch. Asmussen offered no excuses for the performance.

"He just had a bad day," Asmussen said. "He came out of it great and we're definitely going on. He needs to run again and level off.

"Is he in the same league as Tapit? Probably not. But he's a heck of a lot better than he showed last time."

* Because of the Super Bowl, Sunday's first post time has been moved up to 11:30 a.m. Central.