12/10/2002 1:00AM

Rock Slide finally peaking


Trainer Neil Howard hopes Rock Slide will find a graded stakes race with his name on it next year. His prospects as a stallion hinge on it, and after Rock Slide's valiant win Sunday in the Tenacious Handicap at Fair Grounds, there is reason to be hopeful.

By A.P. Indy out of the mare Prospectors Delite - she has produced top racehorse after top racehorse - Rock Slide has the pedigree, speed, and looks of a successful commercial stallion. But his future outside the racetrack will depend in great part on how he performs on the racetrack from here on out.

"Good looks only go so far," said Neil Howard, who trains Rock Slide for a group headed by Will Farish. "It's what they do on the track that counts."

What Rock Slide did Sunday was win the Tenacious, his first stakes, by a nose over Discreet Hero after they ran head and head the length of the stretch. A slow early pace left Rock Slide with something in reserve, but both horses finished unusually fast and were far ahead of the rest of a solid field. After losing time the last two seasons to various injuries, Rock Slide came out of his win in good shape and may truly be peaking for the first time in his career.

"As we speak, I couldn't be happier with him, but you know how quickly things can change in this game," Howard said. "He's had some problems with his feet, but they're ice-cold now."

Even so, Howard doubts Rock Slide will contest Fair Grounds's next route stakes for handicap horses, the Louisiana Handicap early next month. Instead, Rock Slide will aim for bigger prizes, with an eye on the New Orleans Handicap.

"In a perfect world he'd be able to win a Grade 1 somewhere along the way," Howard said. "I think he's probably going to be a nice Grade 2 or Grade 3 kind of horse, but there's a chance."

Fifty Stars looking for form

The world of Fifty Stars is anything but perfect now. After a ninth-place finish in the Tenacious, Fifty Stars finished last in both starts of a comeback that began over the summer.

"It's not what were hoping for, to say the least," trainer Steve Asmussen said.

Winner of the Louisiana Derby here two seasons ago, Fifty Stars hurt himself in the Kentucky Derby but was ready to launch a comeback at this meet last year when he broke a splint bone. That cost him another several months, and when Fifty Stars raced at Churchill Downs last month it was for the first time in more than a year and a half.

Fifty Stars looked good in the paddock Sunday, dappled and on his toes, but he did little running in the Tenacious and lost by about 17 lengths.

"He's training well and he looks well, but he's sure not running well," Asmussen said. "We'll go ahead and run him again. What else are we going to do? We'll just have to wait and see how he trains back."

Champions Day rematch

Louisiana Champions Day is Saturday, and state racing officials are anticipating the full, competitive fields that make it an attractive program to bettors across the country.

The star of the show figures to be Walk in the Snow, the 3-year-old gelding who finished second in the Super Derby this summer. In his last start, Walk in the Snow easily beat the top older horse Oak Hall at Delta Downs, and Saturday's Classic features a rematch between the two.

Besides the Classic, there are six other Champions Day races, and as many as four of them could have full fields. Both 2-year-old stakes, the Lassie and the Juvenile, are certain to overfill, while competition in the Turf and the Ladies also will run deep.

* Green Fee, fifth in the Breeders' Cup Mile in his last race, breezed five furlongs on dirt here Sunday in 1:02.20. Trainer Danny Peitz said Green Fee is on target for the Colonel Bradley Handicap here next month.