02/15/2002 1:00AM

Rising stars or fizzling comets?

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NEW ORLEANS - Repent has gone from being a 42-1 outsider when he finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall to the star of the show Sunday in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. The only graded stakes winner in the field and by far the highest-rated horse in the race, Repent can seal his credentials as a major Kentucky Derby contender in the first start of his 3-year-old season.

Or he can raise doubts.

Trainer Ken McPeek knows all about that. In 1995 McPeek brought Tejano Run, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the previous before, back to the races in the Risen Star. Tejano Run was 1-2 in the race but flopped, finishing a well-beaten fifth, though he came back to finish second in the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm excited," said McPeek, who was to start Derby prospect Harlan's Holiday in Saturday's Grade 1 Fountain of Youth. "But I've been down this road before. There's a lot to do after this and I'm not making too big a deal of this race. I just hope he runs well, and if not, we'll regroup and come back somewhere else."

Repent shipped by plane from Gulfstream to New Orleans on Tuesday and has trained over this track since Thursday. He will be ridden by Tony D'Amico, who also was to ride Harlan's Holiday at Gulfstream.

Repent came to New Orleans to keep him separated from Harlan's Holiday, and because McPeek believed the stretch-running Repent would be better suited to racing at Fair Grounds than Gulfstream. Fair Grounds has a longer stretch, and Gulfstream historically has been viewed as a speed-favoring track.

Repent also makes his first start of the year against a field generally perceived as softer than the one in the Fountain of Youth. Even so, the Risen Star is a more attractive spot than ever for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. The race achieved Grade 3 status this year, and in an overfilled Derby, horses get into the field based on graded stakes earnings.

For the eight horses entered against Repent, the Risen Star serves as a proving ground: Run well and go on to the Louisiana Derby; run poorly and fall off the Kentucky Derby map.

The top three horses from the Jan. 25 Lecomte Stakes here, Easyfromthegito, Sky Terrace, and It'sallinthechase, are back for the Risen Star, along with the race's fifth-place finisher, War Emblem. New faces include French Assault, sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Bob's Image, a two-time winner at this meet; Screen Idol, a Louisiana-bred stakes winner; and recent maiden winner Willowgate.

Easyfromthegitgo ran a gritty race to win the one-mile Lecomte by a nose, but trainer Steve Asmussen concedes the colt must improve to be a major factor in more important races. The question of distance limitations also dogs Easyfromthegitgo, a Dehere colt with a somewhat light frame.

Sky Terrace made his first start of the year in the Lecomte, in which he was slammed leaving the gate, raced three wide on the first turn and head-and-head through a quick pace around the final turn. That he lost by only a nose is a credit to his ability, and trainer Vickie Foley expects Sky Terrace to move forward Sunday.

But he might also move into a fast early pace that could compromise horses showing early speed. War Emblem was the pacesetter in the Lecomte, and Bob's Image, who will be sent from the rail, set a fast pace winning his last start. Between those two and Sky Terrace, the race sets up for a closer like Repent, French Assault, or It'sallinthechase.

French Assault, second to Repent in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile last fall, sat out the Lecomte to point to this race, and has trained well here for trainer Keith Desormeaux, who says the colt is fit enough to give a good account of himself. It'sallinthechase was finishing fastest in the Lecomte and might have won had it been at the Risen Star's distance. The Oklahoma-based Wilson Brown trains It'sallinthechase, who adds blinkers for the race.

The Risen Star's scheduled post is 4:22 CDT, which compromises bettors playing the first round of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. The pool closes at 4:30 CDT.