03/17/2005 12:00AM

Shippers vs. locals in Muniz


NEW ORLEANS - G P Fleet and America Alive, winners of two important turf races at Fair Grounds this meet, will meet Saturday in the track's premier grass race, the Grade 2, $500,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap.

A deep field of 11 horses, including several live shippers, is entered.

In from California is A to the Z, who has won two stakes for California-breds and was second in the Sunshine Millions Turf. In from Florida are the Bobby Frankel-trained Burning Sun, shooting to add a U. S. graded stakes victory to his record, and Demeteor, who is also looking for a stakes win after making the lead in his last start, the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, before fading to fifth.

, the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap winner, drew the outside post, but at 1 1/8 miles he will have nearly the length of the stretch to get position before the first turn. His versatility counts, as jockey Jose Martinez Jr. can decide whether to use his tactical speed to find a good spot early, take the lead as he did in the Fair Grounds BC, or try a late rally like the one he used to win the Tri State Handicap at Ellis Park last year.

G P Fleet had a strong 2004, going 4-3-0 in his final eight starts, including his lifetime-best performance in his win in the Grade 3 River City Handicap at Churchill Downs. Trainer Steve Flint brought him down to Fair Grounds with the Muniz as the goal.

The lone blemish on G P Fleet's recent record was an 11th-place finish in the Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita.

"I still don't know what happened to him out there," Flint said. "He just hated it."

jumped into the local turf handicap picture in January with a last-to-first rally to win the Colonel Bradley Handicap by a head. America Alive finished in front of Honor in War and Rapid Proof, who were also closing fast and were separated by a nose at the wire for second. Those three horses finished right behind G P Fleet in the Fair Grounds BC and are in again Saturday.

America Alive's fourth-place finish in that race is the first time he was off the board on grass.

"He's a slight colt and those first two wins took something out of him," said trainer Neil Howard. "I don't think he liked the soft turf that day, either. And the pace was very slow, and that placed him at a disadvantage with his late running style."

Honor in War is the field's biggest money-winner on turf, earning $900,967 in 24 grass starts, including a victory in the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs in 2003.

Rapid Proof has caught either America Alive or G P Fleet in four of his last five starts, losing three at this meet by a cumulative total of about two lengths. With a little racing luck, Rapid Proof could reverse those placings at a big price.