02/09/2005 12:00AM

Rush Bay's team likes his chances

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NEW ORLEANS - There is at least one person who believes Rush Bay can win the Risen Star Stakes, and that is the jockey Eddie Razo, who has come to New Orleans from Chicago to ride the colt Saturday.

Normally, Razo would be taking it slow right now, awaiting the start of the Chicago racing season later this month, but he began riding Rush Bay late last summer, and trainer Tom Amoss stuck with Razo all the way through Rush Bay's second-place finish last Nov. 27 in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill. Shortly thereafter, Razo's agent, Lindy McDaniel, put in a call to Amoss, asking to retain the call on Rush Bay when the colt returned from a mid-winter freshening. Amoss agreed, and Razo came to New Orleans about a week ago to sharpen his skills and ride a few races.

"I have all the confidence in the world in Eddie Razo," Amoss said. "He's an excellent rider."

Razo has carved out a solid niche at Hawthorne and Arlington, but he has only rarely ventured to New Orleans. In Rush Bay, he lands a developing horse already proven to be stakes class, a horse who should improve with experience and distance.

And that is what Razo said he felt when he rode Rush Bay in a six-furlong workout last Saturday.

"He worked really, really good," Razo said. "I haven't been on a horse that does everything so easily. He worked in 1:13, and he did it so professionally. They put a horse in front of him, but he didn't try to chase at all. He waited for me to ask him, and he went by the horse so easy."

In fact, Razo said it felt like a different Rush Bay than the one he rode as a 2-year-old. Rush Bay raced greenly in his early starts, and his six-furlong career debut was much too short a race. Rush Bay is by Cozzene and out of the Deputy Minister mare Seoul; he is long-bodied and unusually robust for a horse his age, and looks like a true long-distance runner.

"He's the first horse I've brought into the spring where I won't be worried about the longer distances," said Amoss.

Neither is Amoss worrying about the Kentucky Derby, and he quickly squelches talk of Rush Bay as a Derby hopeful. But this is the race Amoss targeted for Rush Bay's 3-year-old debut, and should Rush Bay win the Risen Star, he will move squarely onto the Triple Crown trail.

Private Gift leaps into Grade 3

A lightly raced filly trained by Neil Howard named Shadow Cast won the 2004 Silverbulletday Stakes, and a lightly raced filly trained by Neil Howard will have a chance to win it again Saturday. This year's model is Private Gift, who will jump from a six-furlong maiden win straight into a Grade 3 route race - if she indeed runs.

Private Gift, Robby Albarado named to ride, drew the outside post when a nine-horse field was entered Wednesday in the $150,000 Silverbulletday, a 1 1/16-mile prep for the Fair Grounds Oaks. Because Private Gift is being asked to take a big step up in class while making her two-turn debut, Howard has not committed to running.

"We're 80-percent planning on it," Howard said Wednesday morning. "The only concern is you want to keep her moving forward. We wanted to get a two-turn race under her belt, but she ran out of time."

Private Gift's turbo-charged pedigree, by Unbridled out of the Kentucky Oaks winner Private Status, combined with her physical gifts made her a hot commodity at the betting windows at age 2, but she proved unable to translate the talent she showed in morning training to results in the afternoon, losing two maiden races in Kentucky and another at Saratoga.

"We always liked her from early on, but she ran evenly the three times we tried her," said Howard. "She was always more ahead of herself physically than mentally. There was no downside to turning her out and giving her some time."

Private Gift made her comeback race Jan. 13, and this time she delivered, running to her fast works to win a strong maiden race by 1 1/2 lengths.

"Ever since we brought her back, there have been no drawbacks," said Howard.

But it will take another step up to contend in the Silverbulletday. The favorite, Summerly, has already run in three two-turn races and won an entry-level allowance here Jan. 17 by almost 10 lengths, and the one-two finishers from the Tiffany Lass Stakes, The Beter Man Can and Enduring Will, are back again Saturday.

Gold Mask in first U.S. start

In Friday's ninth-race feature, an entry-level allowance sprint, Howard sends out Gold Mask, a Kentucky-bred Seeking the Gold colt who makes his U.S. debut after a five-start career on the English turf. There was another horse with a similar pattern a couple of years ago - dirt-bred, but turf-campaigned - and his name was Mineshaft.

Gold Mask does not, however, have to be a future Horse of the Year to contend Friday. He does have to beat Elusive Jazz, a sharp recent maiden winner, and Salamaat, who ran fast and lost by only a neck three weeks ago in a race similar to this one.

Alumni Hall has big shoes to fill

Howard had big plans for Saturday's first running of the Mineshaft, which is named after his 2003 Horse of the Year, who campaigned at Fair Grounds. Stall 1 in Howard's barn - Mineshaft's old stall - was occupied by Midway Road, who won the Tenacious Handicap earlier in the meet and was training brilliantly. But Midway Road cracked a cannon bone during a workout and is out for the year.

Alumni Hall, who like Midway Road is owned by Will Farish, showed he may be ready to fill the void left by Midway Road when he won the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup Handicap last month at Sam Houston.

"We've always thought highly of this horse," said Howard, adding that he thinks he has Alumni Hall in top form heading into the Mineshaft, which drew a field of 10.

A 6-year-old son of A.P. Indy, Alumni Hall will have to turn the tables on Gigawatt, who posted a front-running score ahead of Alumni Hall in the Louisiana Handicap on New Year's Eve. With the Nick Zito-trained speedster Wanderin Boy jumping into the mix, and maybe even some pace pressure from West Coast invader Skipaslew, the race could set up better for Alumni Hall or another late-runner such as Colonial Colony, who closed for second behind Alumni Hall in the Maxxam.

Guaranteed pick four

The four stakes races on Saturday's Louisiana Derby Preview Day card at Fair Grounds will be bundled into a $250,000 guaranteed pick four. The pick four comprises the $100,000 Taylor's Special Handicap, the sixth race on the card; the Grade 3, $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes, the seventh; the $100,000 Mineshaft Handicap, the eighth; and the Grade 3, $150,000 Risen Star Stakes, the ninth. The Road to the Derby Kickoff Day pick four Jan. 15 drew $273,000 in wagers and paid $5,132 on a $2 bet. An all-stakes pick four will also be offered March 12, Louisiana Derby Day.

- additional reporting by John Swenson