12/06/2002 12:00AM

Several options in Tenacious

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NEW ORLEANS - With just a $75,000 purse, Sunday's Tenacious Handicap may not be a very lucrative race, but it has just about everything else. There are wounded warriors like Fifty Stars and Valhol trying to come back from injuries; a turf horse, Freefourinternet, trying to transfer his form to dirt; and Connected and Rock Slide, who have flashed brilliance but never quite delivered it.

For older horses at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, the Tenacious drew a field of 10, which bodes well for the older horse division here this meet. The Tenacious is the first in a four-race series that concludes with the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.

Bettors will find no shortage of options here, but may settle on either Rock Slide or Connected as the favorite. Rock Slide was 2-1 when he made his stakes debut here last season in the Louisiana Handicap, but he finished fifth, had surgery after the race, and only now returns to stakes competition. Rock Slide, a great-looking A.P. Indy 4-year-old, comes off what trainer Neil Howard called "probably the best race of his life." Racing at Churchill Downs, Rock Slide tracked a hot pace and missed by three-quarters of a length to Booklet in a very fast one-turn mile.

Connected also has had his moments, and his comeback race Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs probably has him set up for a top effort. Caught behind a slow pace, Connected rallied but made up little ground in the stretch, something that's happened to him before.

"Pace makes the race with him," said trainer David Carroll.

"He's been a successful horse. It's just that sometimes his training has indicated he'd be a contender in top-class races, and he hasn't always followed through on that."

While Carroll feels Connected has trained well and hopes for a good race, Valhol's connections are brimming with confidence.

Unraced since late May, Valhol underwent surgery to repair an injury, the latest in a series of problems that included a near-death brush with pneumonia. Valhol has bounced back again, trainer Dallas Keen said, and his half-mile work here Dec. 4 was especially sharp.

"I think he's ready," Keen said.

Freefourinternet was a sharp grass winner in his last start but has never raced on dirt, while Fifty Stars managed only a ninth-place finish Nov. 1 in his first start since the 2001 Kentucky Derby.

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