01/16/2002 12:00AM

Pricey colt excels on grass

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NEW ORLEANS - There's still a gulf between Rylstone's career earnings and his lofty $350,000 purchase price as a 2-year-old in training last year, but he can continue paying for himself Friday at Fair Grounds in the featured ninth race.

Rylstone, trained by Lynn Whiting for owner Choctaw Racing Stable, faces eight rivals, including a Steve Asmussen-trained entry, in a first-level turf allowance race for 3-year-olds. The spot is a step down from Rylstone's original goal here, the Jan. 4 Black Gold Handicap. Rylstone came up ill shortly before the Black Gold and was forced out of that start.

The illness behind him, Rylstone, who is stabled here in trainer Al Stall's barn, came back Jan. 12 to work a strong five furlongs in 1:01.40, fourth fastest of 25 works at the distance that day.

By Mecke, a $7,500 stallion, Rylstone made a formidable impression at the Ocala Breeders' Sale in March 2001, where he fetched a huge sum for a horse with his pedigree. But after a rocky start to his career, Rylstone confirmed his quality - and his fondness for grass - in stakes company.

Still a maiden after a pair of dirt races at Saratoga, Rylstone made his first start on turf and around two turns in the $75,000 Manila Stakes on Oct. 20 at Arlington, coming from mid-pack to beat a large field by three lengths. After losing by a head in an open turf allowance race at Churchill, Rylstone concluded his 2-year-old season by further proving himself a turf horse with a last-place finish on dirt in the Kentucky Jockey Club Handicap. Larry Melancon, aboard in Rylstone's last two starts, rides the colt again Friday, and almost certainly will be sitting on the favorite.

There are a few possible upsetters, chief among them Native Mark, who made a mid-race move to reach contention in the Black Gold but wound up settling for third in the race, beaten three lengths for the win. Native Mark was compromised by an outside draw when he tried allowance company earlier this meet, but has the rail this start with jockey Kirk LeBlanc, who is having a strong meet.

Bellezo, bred top and bottom for turf, makes his second career start, coming off a six-month layoff. Bellezo won his debut against a watered-down, off-the-turf field at Belmont Park, but has a strong pedigree and has been working regularly here for trainer Todd Pletcher, who is excellent with first-time turf runners. Pletcher's three Fair Grounds wins all have come in grass races.

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