02/07/2008 1:00AM

Questions dog Grasshopper


NEW ORLEANS - Grasshopper, among the better prospects for major dirt handicap races this year, is slated to make his first start since last September in the $150,000 Mineshaft Handicap here Saturday. The trainer Neil Howard has brought good horses up to their seasonal debuts plenty of times, but that doesn't mean it's a piece of cake.

"You're trying to do the most difficult thing to do," Howard said this week. "You want him to be ready, but you don't want to blow the hair off his back."

In other words, the Mineshaft falls some eight months before the Breeders' Cup, if one suspected he had a horse good enough for that day's racing. Therefore, the question is whether Grasshopper - even if he really is a top-class performer - is going to beat a solid field in the Mineshaft, a Grade 3 contested at 1o1/16 miles on dirt.

Grasshopper and Robby Albarado will break from post 2 in a seven-horse field, and the main competition appears to be on the outside. Silver Lord, a sharp winner of the Louisiana Handicap at Fair Grounds last month, is in post 5, the accomplished handicapper Magna Graduate in 6, and Better Than Bonds, who may be a narrow cut below, on the far outside.

Silver Lord, who was cross-entered in the Essex at Oaklawn but resided at Fair Grounds as of Thursday, was an unraced 4-year-old maiden last fall, but has made rapid strides. He won an entry-level allowance race here on Dec. 24, and scored a 14-1 upset in the Louisiana Cap, his stakes debut, setting a fast pace but easily holding off the competition.

"When they went into the far turn he relaxed, and he was still going strong," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "He was far from empty."

Magna Graduate had an up-and-down 2007, but still earned a half-million dollars last year, and has a $2.3omillion career bankroll.

"He's sometimes a little picky about his surfaces, and he didn't like Saratoga a great deal," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "We'll find out how he likes the Fair Grounds to determine if he comes back for the New Orleans Handicap."

The New Orleans Handicap figures to be Grasshopper's early-season goal if he returns to the form he showed last summer, when he finished a close second to Street Sense in the Travers.

"He's got a lot of work under his belt," Howard said. "I think he's ready to run a good race."