01/30/2004 1:00AM

Stakes next step for Herculated


NEW ORLEANS - Herculated, who on Thursday won his second straight race since returning from a layoff, will make his next start in stakes competition. Trainer Mike Stidham said Herculated would be nominated to the Mardi Gras Handicap here Feb. 24 but also said his schedule wasn't firmly set.

Herculated's win Thursday at Fair Grounds looked stakes-worthy. In his comeback race Dec. 27, Herculated ran along close to solid early fractions, taking the lead at the top of the stretch. This time, he dropped eight or 10 lengths behind a sluggish pace on the backstretch but hurtled through the stretch, catching the pace horse, Astrologist, in deep stretch and drawing away in the final yards to win by three-quarters of a length. Herculated ran his final half-furlong in less than six seconds.

Herculated is a Louis Quatorze homebred owned by Oak Crest Farm. He started his career with a bang here last season, winning his first two starts. But Herculated lost his form last summer as he battled physical problems, and he didn't race between June and December. Herculated returned from a freshening in much better shape, and Stidham said Herculated has been able to press forward without any problems.

"He's a very straightforward horse to train," Stidham said. "He'll do anything you want him to do."

That is what Herculated has shown in his races. His adaptability, plus his strong turn of foot, makes him a horse to watch in the coming months. The Fair Grounds turf division has lacked a developing turf stakes star since Joyeaux Danseur won the Explosive Bid in 1998. Herculated has not reached that level yet, but it is not out of the question.

Political Risk opts for allowance

Conspicuously absent from the Whirlaway Handicap is Political Risk, but that's because he was entered in a second-level allowance two races before the Whirlaway.

Trainer Neil Howard said Political Risk's owners and he elected at the last moment to enter the allowance rather than the stakes. Howard said he knew the allowance race was an option and had considered the spot for weeks but had wavered between the two races.

"This is the right thing to do, going in the allowance rather than the stakes," Howard said. "That's what conditions are for - to allow a horse to move up one step at a time."

Political Risk has started only four times, and his career was interrupted most of last season by physical problems. Howard began getting serious with the horse here in November, but Political Risk has gotten in only one sprint start so far.

"If we had been able to run him once at Churchill and then stretch him out here, we could have gone into the Whirlaway in better shape," Howard said.

Howard said he remains hopeful that Political Risk will earn a spot in the New Orleans Handicap, which Howard has won the last two seasons.

"I feel even better about using this race to get him there than the stakes," Howard said.

Baie also allowance-bound

Baie, who just missed winning the $75,000 Pago Hop in her last start, is another stakes-level horse running in an allowance race here Sunday. Trained by Mark Frostad, Baie has made three starts since being exported from France, finishing a close sixth in the Grade 1 E. P. Taylor before coming to Fair Grounds. She rallied six wide in the Pago Hop but couldn't overtake a Christophe Clement ship-in named Snowdrops, losing by a half-length. Both horses finished very strongly.