03/01/2002 12:00AM

Small-town Oak Hall gets his big shot

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NEW ORLEANS - The horse from Opelousas, La., has never tangled with this sort of foe before. But then the horse from Opelousas has never been this good before.

The Louisiana-bred gelding Oak Hall is riding a wave of good form into the New Orleans Handicap, and though he hardly fits the profile of a New Orleans Handicap winner, there's really no telling how good Oak Hall might be.

Certainly he is the best horse trainer Doyle Wardrop and owner Ena Ortego have ever come across. "We've never had one to be able to run in a half-million dollar race before," Wardrop said. "You can't win if you don't run."

And so on Sunday, Oak Hall will make the van trip from Wardrop's year-round base at Evangeline Downs to Fair Grounds, where he set a stakes record winning the Louisiana Champions Day Classic the last time he raced at Fair Grounds. The horses Oak Hall beat in the Classic, and the horses he has beaten in his best two-turn wins, do not match up well with Oak Hall's competition Sunday. But there is no denying Oak Hall's sharpness, and his most recent race was his best ever, according to Wardrop.

A month after the Classic, Oak Hall shipped to Sam Houston for the seven-furlong Houston Sprint Handicap and beat the top regional sprinter Boots on Sunday by 1 1/2 lengths. "He probably ran the race of his life last out," Wardrop said. "He just destroyed a good field."

Wardrop is not concerned that Oak Hall stretches back out to two turns. "He doesn't seem to care," he said. "Long, short, turf, dirt, he'll do anything."

It took a while before Oak Hall would do much of anything. Wardrop said Oak Hall had a chip removed from his knee as a 2-year-old, and he won only three times in his first 14 starts and once was entered in a $25,000 claiming race. Then, Wardrop discovered Oak Hall thrived with more time between starts. "He doesn't want to run very often," Wardrop said. "Since we found that out, he's been awesome."

Indeed, Oak Hall has won 10 of 17 starts and four of his last six races. "With what he's done, he deserves a shot in here," Wardrop said.

Lord Jim comes long way to try dirt

Lord Jim is about the only Southern California-based older horse who was not running Saturday in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. Instead, Lord Jim will be the West Coast's lone representative in the New Orleans Handicap, and a long-priced one at that.

An Argentine-bred owned by Gary Tanaka, Lord Jim has raced only four times in this country and only once on dirt, finishing second only two weeks ago in the restricted San Marino Handicap, which was rained off turf.

"I worry that it's back quick and we're shipping across country, but we're going to give it a try," said trainer Carla Gaines.

Lord Jim shipped to Fair Grounds on Thursday and is bedded down in the barn of trainer Alice Cohn. Longtime friends, Cohn and Gaines went to high school together in Birmingham, Ala., and 20 years ago were in business together, pinhooking, breaking, and selling horses out of New Orleans.

My Brent's Diamond retired

Just as she had reached career-best form, My Brent's Diamond was retired on Friday. A 5-year-old Louisiana-bred sprinter, My Brent's Diamond had won her last two starts, both stakes races in which she beat Hallowed Dreams.

But in a half-mile workout on Friday at Fair Grounds, My Brent's Diamond fractured a sesamoid in her left front leg, and rather than try and bring her back to the races, the mare's owner and breeder, Mike Meeks, has decided to retire her.

"She pulled up okay, but cooling out she started taking bad steps on the leg," said trainer Jerry Quinn. The blow to Quinn's small stable, which has fared well this meet, was a strong one. "Terribly disappointing would be an understatement," Quinn said. "But at least she goes out on top."

My Brent's Diamond, who will be bred this year, retires with an excellent career record of 23-9-6-4 and earnings of almost $400,000.

Dirt runners swell entry box

Wet weather in New Orleans on Friday swelled the number of entries for Sunday's $75,000 Dixie Poker Ace to 11. Races were off the turf here Friday and with more rain in the forecast grass racing could be affected Sunday, which is why so many horses with a preference for dirt were entered in the Dixie Poker Ace.

The race is scheduled to be run at about 7 1/2 furlongs on turf, but would be contested at a mile if it's transferred to the main track.

On turf, the Dixie Poker Ace, which is restricted to Louisiana-breds, boils down to a rematch between Coach Rags and Mr. Sulu. Mr. Sulu won the Louisiana Champions Day Turf, a race in which Coach Rags finished seventh, but Coach Rags won a Jan. 11 turf allowance race in which Mr. Sulu finished sixth.

Mr. Sulu had virtually no chance in his last start. The speedy L'homme was in the race, and jockey Kirk Leblanc, Mr. Sulu's regular rider in New Orleans, obviously feared letting L'homme go on the lead. Mr. Sulu wound up chasing L'homme through impossibly fast splits and when both horses tired in the stretch, Coach Rags pounced.

How the Dixie Poker Ace unfolds depends on who actually starts, and there will be scratches on either surface. Mr. Sulu handles dirt as well as turf, and on the main track might get a great pace setup stalking several front-runners.