12/11/2003 1:00AM

Recency edge to Coach Rags

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NEW ORLEANS - This year, Coach Rags got his prep race in for the Champions Day Turf, while Mr. Sulu was left out in the cold. Age, however, may be catching up to Coach Rags while Mr. Sulu still is getting stronger.

Only seven horses were entered in the $100,000 Turf, making it the shortest field of the Louisiana Champions Day undercard, but the Coach Rags vs. Mr. Sulu matchup does the race justice. These are the two most likely winners, but Silky Zarb, a sharp winner on dirt in his last start, and the 3-year-old Zarb's Music, winner of the $100,000 Gentilly Handicap on this course in March, lend some depth to the field.

Coach Rags, who turns 8 in three weeks, is a big, heavy horse who usually needs a tune-up race to put forth a top effort after a layoff. Year after year, his prep for the Champions Day Turf either failed to fill, or was rained onto dirt, leaving Coach Rags unprepared for the big day. This season, things went according to trainer Gary Palmisano's plan, and Coach Rags turned in a solid effort here Nov. 28, winning a statebred allowance by 1 1/2 lengths with a strong late run.

Coach Rags is ready, but what of Mr. Sulu, his turf rival here for the last three seasons? To trainer Josie Carroll's dismay, Mr. Sulu wasn't eligible for the allowance prep, and she has had to bring her horse up to the Turf off workouts.

"I was hoping to get him a race, but he had a great work for this," Carroll said.

In last year's turf, Mr. Sulu ran wild on the lead, setting hot fractions while opening a 10-length lead, yet he still held on to finish a close third. That is not Mr. Sulu's race, and Carroll readily acknowledges her horse is much better off when anchored behind the pace. With that trip, Mr. Sulu finished third last spring in the Grade 3 Connaght Cup at Woodbine, a mark of his inherent class.

"To tell you the truth, it looks like he's getting more mature and better as he gets older," said Carroll.

And that may be enough for Mr. Sulu to win the Turf for the second time in three seasons.

Juvenile: Fuzzy Fund should like six furlongs

Fuzzy Fund loved running seven furlongs around two turns at Delta Downs. If he can run the same way at one turn and six furlongs, Fuzzy Fund ought to win the $100,000 Champions Day Juvenile.

But that is no sure thing, and Fuzzy Fund has 11 rivals in a wide-open edition of the Juvenile.

A Valene Farms homebred, Fuzzy Fund debuted in a five-furlong Delta maiden race, but lacked the quickness to keep up at that trip.

"We had tried to run him at seven-eighths first out," said trainer B.J. Gilbert. "But we couldn't get in the race, and he needed to get started, so we tried him at five-eighths. Watching him train, I didn't think he had enough speed for that - just enough to get him in trouble."

That is exactly what happened, and Fuzzy Fund finished seventh in his debut, but he came back to win a seven-furlong maiden race by more than three lengths and a seven-furlong entry-level allowance by more than four.

"I think three-quarters at Fair Grounds is going to hit him just right," Gilbert said.

If not, the race may fall to Nitro Chip, who was claimed out of a $20,000 maiden race on Aug. 24 and who has won two statebred stakes for owner Emmitt Pickett and trainer Sam Breaux since then.

Ladies: A repeat for Prized Amberpro?

It should be business as usual in the $100,000 Ladies for Prized Amberpro, who has made 38 starts and won 17 of them. She was much the best in the $100,000 Ladies last season, and faces a field of similar quality this time.

Owned by Linda Patch and Joseph Thomas and trained at Delta by John Gelner, Prized Amberpro didn't look anything like a stakes horse when she began her career, and even when her talent began to surface, Prized Amberpro seemed like a superior horse making one late run in sprints. But she has turned out to be as effective at two turns as one, and is coming off a two-length win in the $75,000 Magnolia Handicap on Nov. 14 at Delta.

Long Leg Lou had a good summer at Louisiana Downs, but she has not yet beaten the likes of Prized Amberpro.

Lassie: Tough race for handicappers

For handicappers, the $100,000 Lassie may be the most puzzling race of the day. Spring Rade, in from Evangeline Downs for trainer Lloyd Romero, won a $50,000 statebred stakes in her last start, but the race was at five furlongs, and she will have no help getting this six-furlong trip from any of the other speed horses in the Lassie.

One filly to watch is Von Braun, who was heavily bet when she made her career here opening day for trainer Steve Asmussen. The racetrack was exceptionally sloppy that afternoon, and Von Braun was beaten just a half-length. Her true potential could come to light at just the right time.

* Asmussen has three of the 13 horses entered in the $50,000 Starter, a dirt race at 1 1/16 miles. One of Asmussen's horses, Sunup Sundown, won the Starter two years ago.