03/17/2004 12:00AM

Several invaders are likely for Muniz

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NEW ORLEANS - As of Wednesday, the prospective field for Sunday's Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Handicap stood at about 11, pending late decisions by a couple of trainers. Whatever final choices come down, the race is shaping up as a key early-season test in the older turf division.

At 1 1/8 miles on grass, the Muniz fits both miler types and horses suited to 1 1/4 miles and beyond. The $500,000 purse suits just about anyone.

And that is why horsemen from both coasts regularly respond favorably to the Muniz, though last year's edition was not one of the strongest. Two seasons ago, Sarafan and Beat Hollow finished one-two, and this year's race appears to be developing more along those lines.

On Wednesday, however, the trainer Mike Matz said he will not send Kicken Kris, who could have been among the favorites, from his Palm Beach Downs base. Matz still might have a horse for the Friday flight from Florida: Political Attack, who finished second to Millennium Dragon last out in the Jan. 4 Appleton Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Political Attack's presence could change the shape of the Muniz; the race lacks pace, and Political Attack has good route speed.

Others expected to ship from Florida are Proud Man, winner of the Sunshine Millions Turf in his last start; Silver Tree, the promising Bill Mott-trained colt who won his 4-year-old debut a month ago at Gulfstream; and Willard Straight, another 4-year-old - this one trained by Todd Pletcher - who recently scored an impressive Gulfstream allowance victory.

Bobby Frankel is expected to run two in the Muniz, though Frankel is known for last-second changes of heart. Burning Sun, a highly regarded European import, and the Grade 3 winner Nothing to Lose are the two Frankel horses, the only Californians scheduled to ship here.

The local horses expected to start are Great Bloom, Herculated, Majestic Thief, Mystery Giver, and Skate Away. Freefourinternet is considered a possible runner.

Cat Genius gets a rest after two hard races

Cat Genius ran hard Feb. 22 when he narrowly lost the Taylor's Special Handicap, and he ran hard again Sunday in narrowly winning the Pelleteri Breeders' Cup Handicap, equaling the stakes record with a six-furlong time of 1:08.83. Cat Genius has a right to be worn out this week, and according to trainer Tom Amoss, he is.

"He's tired - real tired," Amoss said Wednesday morning. "His last two efforts were really hard. I sense he needs some time, four or five weeks minimum."

Besides being fatigued, Cat Genius exited his game Pelleteri win in good physical condition, Amoss said. Even so, the down time will force him to miss such races as the Count Fleet at Oaklawn Park and the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup at Keeneland. Amoss said he hasn't yet picked out Cat Genius's next start.

Nor does he know where another exceptionally fast sprinter in his barn, Cloud Walker, will next race. Cloud Walker has won three of his four starts by a combined margin of more than 16 lengths, and Amoss said the colt has been training forwardly.

Indiana-bred Spruce Hero finds his calling

Quick, name some Indiana-bred turf stakes horses.

If the list is short, join the crowd. But here's one to watch: Spruce Hero.

The 4-year-old Indiana-bred Spruce Hero is by the $5,000 Danzig sire Partner's Hero, and he has looked very much like a stakes horse in two recent grass starts at Fair Grounds. Spruce Hero, owned by Chris Nolan and trained by Walter Bindner, debuted in a dirt sprint last May at Churchill Downs, but showed little in that start or his next, another dirt sprint here Jan. 26.

But all along, Bindner figured Spruce Hero was meant to be a route horse. Switched to turf and two turns, Spruce Hero was 36-1 in a one-mile maiden race here Feb. 19, and he won by more than four lengths.

The performance was no fluke. On Sunday, racing other winners for the first time, Spruce Hero settled in last behind a slow pace, but passed all eight of his rivals with a powerful stretch run to win going away by a length. Spruce Hero ran the final quarter-mile in well under 24 seconds and the final furlong in 11 seconds and change.

"I think he's probably as good-looking a horse as I've trained," Bindner said. "He's big, and he's kind of awkward, and he really needs to warm up a lot to run well."

Bindner said he plans to run Spruce Hero back in an allowance race at the Keeneland meet. The future is less certain for Shiloh Bound, the undefeated colt who won the Black Gold Handicap in his last start. Shiloh Bound has been in and out of training since then, but Bindner gave a thumbs-down when asked about the gelding's progress this week. He has not been able to get Shiloh Bound turned around, and Shiloh Bound has been turned out.