01/30/2004 1:00AM

Spanish Empire rising fast


NEW ORLEANS - Six months ago, Spanish Empire was a struggling entry-level allowance horse at Saratoga. Sunday, he's the favorite in the $100,000 Whirlaway Handicap at Fair Grounds. One more win, and will look like legitimate New Orleans Handicap material.

Nine horses were entered in the Whirlaway, a Grade 3 at 1 1/16 miles on dirt. The stakes is the eighth of nine races on a card that begins early, at 11:30 a.m. Central, because of the Super Bowl.

Whether Spanish Empire has the substance of a handicap star or is just a decent horse in the midst of a hot streak should be more apparent after this race. The opposition doesn't include the talented young horse Political Risk, who was entered instead in a second-level allowance race Sunday, but there are two horses in from California, and Total Impact, and one from Florida, M B Sea.

Also in the field is the Tenacious Handicap winner, G.W.'s Skippie, and El Ruller, a promising third in a sprint prep here the last time he raced.

Spanish Empire joined trainer Steve Asmussen's barn last August after failing to make the cut as a New York allowance horse. Spanish Empire went to Asmussen's Kentucky string, and at first was slated to run at Louisiana Downs, but he began training well enough that Asmussen decided to run him at Keeneland. He won by more than nine lengths, and has run three strong races since then, the last of which produced a one-length win in the Jan. 2 Louisiana Handicap.

"I think he's gotten a lot stronger in his back end," said Asmussen. "He has more control now."

Not surprising. Spanish Empire is just a 4-year-old, about the time when the offspring of his sire, Pleasant Colony, begin to mature.

The better Spanish Empire ran, the more focused he became in day-to-day training. In fact, the concern Sunday is that Spanish Empire, too keyed up, worked too quickly last Monday, when he was timed in 46.40 seconds for a half-mile.

M B Sea beat Tenpins in the Fayette Handicap last fall, and has run well at several different racetracks. His trainer, Dale Romans, is having a strong Gulfstream meet, and his success could carry over to Fair Grounds.

Olmodavor was second in the 2003 New Orleans Handicap, but was hard-ridden to finish third as the favorite last out in the San Pasqual Handicap. "I was disappointed in his race," trainer Dick Mandella said. "He was a little dull, but he came out it well."