01/19/2006 12:00AM

Stakes chase has 'Dragon' as invader


Having proven himself among the best 4-year-old California turf horses, Chinese Dragon has traveled east seeking his first graded-stakes victory, but to win the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap, still must step up his game.

Besides the California shipper, there are seven in the Grade 3, $200,000 Fair Grounds BC, the third of four stakes on an 11-race Saturday card at Louisiana Downs. And considering that this is not the season for grass horses, and that Fair Grounds's regular stakes schedule was blown away by Hurricane Katrina, the race came up tough. There are no easy throwouts, though Gallo Del Bar, Sampson's Son, and Ole Faunty are the outsiders.

The pressing question is: How good is Chinese Dragon? He had won only a maiden race in Ireland when trainer Bob Hess purchased him for some $150,000 at a Tattersalls sale. Owned by a partnership, Chinese Dragon won an allowance race in his first U.S. start - and has kept on winning. His lone U.S. defeat was a narrow loss at Turf Paradise last November, but though he has won four stakes, Chinese Dragon has never faced older horses, nor beaten an especially talented opponent.

"He's going to have to improve, no doubt," Hess said. "The deal with the horse is he doesn't like to win by a whole lot. He has the ability to run better if he wants to."

hasn't won as prolifically as Chinese Dragon, but he has a higher established class level, and was beaten a nose by America Alive in the River City Handicap at Churchill in his most recent race. It has been two months since then, but G P Fleet shows four solid works in the last five weeks, and trainer Steve Flint said the horse is "as fit as I can get him."

"He runs well fresh," Flint said. "He's just got to run his race."

Flint was especially curious about the pace setup in the Fair Grounds BC, in great part because Onthedeanslist got loose on the lead and led all the way winning the Bradley Handicap over this course Dec. 18. But with five-time Louisiana Downs turf winner Waupaca in the race, and more potential pace from Sampson's Son and Ole Faunty, might be pushed harder Saturday.

That would be welcome news for , who finished second in the Bradley after racing too far behind Onthedeanslist in the early going. Fort Prado has an explosive kick at his best, and may get a chance to show it off this time.

"He's coming into the race nicely," said trainer Jeff Trosclair, "and I think you're going to see a much better performance."