12/07/2001 1:00AM

Rock Slide may be right horse on wrong surface

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NEW ORLEANS - It's not exactly as trainer Neil Howard planned, but a race on turf will have to do. Rock Slide, a late-blooming 3-year-old colt that Howard hopes will become a force in the handicap ranks next year, makes his Fair Grounds debut Sunday in a third-level turf allowance.

Howard passed on last weekend's Tenacious Handicap in order to give Rock Slide another shot in a conditioned allowance race, but he had hoped to run the colt on dirt. But with no suitable dirt race on the horizon, and with the Dec. 29 Louisiana Handicap being Rock Slide's close-range objective, Howard will give turf a shot - and hope that the race is moved onto the main track because of rain.

"It's not what I had in mind, but it looked about like my only shot to keep him on schedule now," Howard said. "It would behoove us to get him a race before the Louisiana Handicap."

Rock Slide has won two consecutive races, a first-level allowance at Keeneland by more than 10 lengths and a second-level allowance at Churchill by 1 1/4 lengths. Since adding Lasix in May and coming back from a layoff in August, Rock Slide has shown signs of top-level talent, and Howard said he has continued to thrive in New Orleans. "He's training beautiful and he looks great," he said. "I'm really happy with his progress."

It's not as if Rock Slide is cut out to be a bum on the lawn. He's by A.P. Indy, whose offspring often handle the grass, and his dam, the excellent broodmare Prospectors Delite, is a daughter of Mr. Prospector. But, Howard points out, "there's not much turf on the dam's side," and there are no specific plans to make Rock Slide a turf horse at the moment.

Rock Slide, however, is likely to be the favorite Sunday, which means value could surface in the other five entrants. Especially appealing are Holy Conflict and Good Night. Holy Conflict had terrible luck at Arlington this summer, losing three races at this allowance condition that he might have won. Holy Conflict, one of two horses entered by trainer Gene Cilio, has won two of his three career starts at Fair Grounds.

Good Night makes his first start since Louie Roussel purchased him last spring, but Roussel wins at a 27 percent clip with horses new to his barn and a 40 percent clip (from a limited sample) with comeback horses like Good Night.

Carroll connects with Connected

Trainer David Carroll, fresh off a strong Churchill Downs meet, has assembled his stable at Fair Grounds, and in the 4-year-old colt, Connected, he figures to have a player in the local handicap division. Connected, a Twining colt owned by Helen Groves and Helen Alexander, has always been a useful horse, but his form reached a peak this fall in Kentucky, where he won back-to-back stakes at Keeneland.

Carroll gets a wistful look in his eye when he mentions Connected's last race, the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill, in which Connected closed with a rush to lose by less than two lengths. "If we'd just had a little more pace there," Carroll said.

Carroll has tinkered with Connected to coax improvement out of him, but still isn't certain how to account for his improvement. "Hopefully, it's just maturity," he said.

Connected's main goal is the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap on March 3, and Carroll said he'll point the colt to the Whirlaway Handicap here Feb. 10.

o Carroll also said that the 3-year-old filly Wood Sprite, winner of the Tiffany Lass here last season, has been retired. Wood Sprite had a long layoff after running in the Fair Grounds Oaks, made a couple starts this summer, and was taken out of training while attempting yet another comeback.