09/07/2004 11:00PM

Relative calm this time for Howard

Fair Grounds
Neil Howard runs Midway Road in the Woodward.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The anxiety Neil Howard felt before last year's Woodward was self-induced. He was running the best horse, and Mineshaft ran like the best horse, winning by 4 1/4 lengths in a very fast time of 1:46.21. Mineshaft won the Jockey Club Gold Cup here three weeks later en route to Horse of the Year honors.

One would figure that Howard would have more reason to be anxious this Saturday when he saddles Midway Road against Ghostzapper and likely four others in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. Surprisingly though, Howard seems very relaxed - and quietly confident - as he tries to become the first trainer to win this Grade 1 race in back-to-back years with different horses.

"That was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime feeling to have a horse like that going into the biggest races," Howard said of Mineshaft. "It puts things in perspective, that's for sure. Even though I'm excited abut the prospects of Midway Road going to the Woodward because he's doing real good now, that was something else last year."

Midway Road has yet to show the consistency of his onetime stablemate, but under the right circumstances he can be brilliant. Such was the case in April, when Midway Road galloped in the slop at Keeneland to win the Grade 3 Ben Ali Handicap by 11 1/4 lengths. His Beyer Speed Figure of 123 was the highest recorded in five years before Ghostzapper earned a 128 winning last month's Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park.

Midway Road followed his Ben Ali romp with a strong second-place finish behind Southern Image in the Pimlico Special in May. In the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, however, Midway Road finished last in the six-horse field. His connections were puzzled and eventually wrote it off to having bounced off two grueling efforts.

"That bounce thing, sometimes you just don't see it," Howard said. "The horse seems to be training fine and all systems are go. You don't see it till the quarter pole of the next race."

As a 3-year-old, Midway Road was good enough to run second in the Preakness, albeit 9 3/4 lengths behind Funny Cide. He finished third in the Ohio Derby, but came out of that race with a hairline fracture of a hind ankle. No surgery was required, but he missed the remainder of the year.

Howard had targeted the Ben Ali as Midway Road's first objective, but needed a prep race beforehand. After a couple of sprint races didn't fill, Midway Road ran fourth in a third-level allowance at a mile and 40 yards at Fair Grounds. Five weeks later, Midway Road romped in the Ben Ali.

After the Stephen Foster debacle, Howard had thought about running Midway Road in the Whitney at Saratoga. But Howard and owner Will Farish called an audible, in part because Midway Road possessed the same front-running style as many of the Whitney contenders. Indeed, Roses in May won the race after stalking the runaway speed of Yessirgeneralsir.

Instead, Howard found an allowance race for Midway Road. On Aug. 21, over a sloppy track, Midway Road galloped to a 3 1/2-length score.

"It was everything we wanted and then some," Howard said. "He gets a lot out of his training and his races. You know he's not a real big, heavy colt, and he gets a lot out of a race, even though I know it was an allowance race. I think he did enough to have him coming in nice and fresh and fit.''

On Wednesday, Howard said he was very happy with the way Midway Road has trained since the allowance race. Midway Road has breezed twice, including a half-mile move in 47.48 seconds over Belmont's main track on Monday.

"The way he's trained since that race has been fantastic," Howard said. "It's a fact-finding mission, but we kind of feel like he's going to run well."

The Woodward will likely determine Midway Road's future. A strong performance could put him on the road to the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 30. With an average effort Saturday, there is always the Grade 3 Fayette at Keeneland.

"We'll find out a lot," Howard said.