01/28/2004 1:00AM

Spanish Empire bullet too quick for trainer

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NEW ORLEANS - There are times when a fast work is not such a good thing, and nobody was whooping and hollering when Spanish Empire breezed a half-mile in 46.40 seconds, the fastest such work on Monday at Fair Grounds.

One snappy half-mile probably won't be the end of Spanish Empire, a typical son of Pleasant Colony - late-blooming and long-striding. Still, the fast breeze wasn't what trainer Steve Asmussen was looking for less than a week away from Spanish Empire's graded stakes debut in Sunday's Grade 3, $100,000 Whirlaway Handicap.

"He worked too fast the other day," Asmussen flatly stated Wednesday morning. "It was more than we wanted him to do. Now, he has to go out and win this weekend."

Spanish Empire is one of nine or 10 horses expected to run in the Whirlaway, the major prep here for the New Orleans Handicap. Spanish Empire is no superstar yet, but he might be the most interesting horse in the race. After struggling to win any kind of race last season, he has blossomed in the last six months and looked good winning the Louisiana Handicap in his last start, upsetting heavily favored Tenpins.

Spanish Empire was slow to come around, and still doesn't have everything figured out.

"He's not all the way there yet," Asmussen said. "He's still doesn't know exactly what he's doing. That's why he worked too fast. He doesn't know any better yet."

Spanish Empire will have opponents from both coasts. M B Sea, winner of the Fayette at Keeneland last fall, already has shipped in from Florida, and Country Be Gold, another Florida-based horse, also is expected to run. A flight carrying Olmodavor and Total Impact from California is due Friday evening. Olmodavor finished second to Mineshaft last season in the New Orleans Handicap.

Other probable Whirlaway starters include Almuhathir, Classic Par, El Ruller, G.W.'s Skippie, and Political Risk.

Tough call for Freefourinternet

The bridge between the Whirlaway and Saturday's $150,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup is Freefourinternet, who is listed as a possible starter for both races.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do with him yet," trainer Joan Scott said.

Freefourinternet won the Kelso Handicap on turf last fall, but also won an off-the-turf allowance race here earlier this meet and was second last out in the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston, another dirt race.

In the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup, a wide-open race, he would be one of the favorites. Mystery Giver, who won the race last year, is scheduled to make his season's debut on Saturday. Other likely starters are Act of War, Gentlemen J J, Great Bloom, Majestic Thief, Skate Away, Storybook Kid, Warleigh, and Waupaca.

Tapit taking middle ground

David Fiske, the racing manager for Winchell Thoroughbreds, confirmed Wednesday that Tapit is headed to Fair Grounds for the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 15. Fiske said early plans called for Tapit to ship from the Palm Meadows training center in South Florida, where he is currently stabled, on Wednesday, Feb. 11.

"We wanted to run him somewhere that weekend," Fiske said, explaining the decision to ship to Fair Grounds. "There was the Hutcheson, the Fountain of Youth, an allowance race at Gulfstream, and the Risen Star. We were afraid of the allowance race not going. The purse in the Risen Star isn't as big as the Fountain of Youth, but it's asking a lot of the horse to get him ready to run against some of the horses going to [the Fountain of Youth]. That race usually has a big field, too. It seems like everybody in Florida with a 3-year-old will run them there. This seemed like a good option."

Asmussen duo to get in gear

A pair of Steve Asmussen-trained stakes horses, Cuvee and Lady Tak, will get down to serious training beginning next week. Lady Tak is likely to have her first breeze of the year on Monday, Asmussen said, while Cuvee also will work some time next week.

"He grabbed himself a little bit, so we might wait a couple more days," Asmussen said. "They'll do something slow, barely timeable."

Three stand out in training races

Elusive Dawn, Nicki's Wish, and Truthful Dutch were the best-looking horses in four training races here Wednesday morning.

Elusive Dawn, an Elusive Quality filly, was a high-end purchase last spring at the Keeneland sale of 2-year-olds in training, but took plenty of time to come around, according to trainer David Carroll.

"I didn't think she ever was going to grow, but she finally did," Carroll said. "She's going to be okay."

Elusive Dawn stalked the early pace in the day's first race, and won without being pushed hard. Her five-furlong time of 1:01 was the fastest of the morning.

Office Attire ran fourth in the same heat, but finished strongly while under little urging, and galloped out very well. Her future might be in two-turn races.

Truthful Dutch showed speed and won the third race, but she was never asked to run and galloped out well.