01/27/2005 1:00AM

Stewart's filly tests Howard's colt

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NEW ORLEANS - Neil Howard and Dallas Stewart each work out of Barn 4 on the Fair Grounds backstretch, a proximity conducive to friendly rivalry even if they didn't compete regularly for stakes money.

"Mister Neil, he beats us in the afternoon and he beats us at night," Lee Guidry, an exercise rider for Stewart, said with a laugh. Stewart's horses finished second to Howard's last Saturday in stakes races at Fair Grounds and Sam Houston Park.

The rivalry continues Saturday when Stewart's promising grass filly Cape Hope faces six colts, including Howard's improving Straw Hat, in the Black Gold Handicap for 3-year-olds at 7 1/2 furlongs on grass.

"Somebody told me I should have let the air out of Neil's tires," Stewart joked within earshot of Howard on Thursday morning. Stewart's amiability reflected chances to achieve a measure of revenge for last week's losses. Cape Hope came alive this winter over the Fair Grounds turf course, winning her maiden by six lengths, then beating entry-level allowance fillies by an even wider margin. Both races were at a mile, but she made the lead at the top of the stretch each time so the cutback in distance should not be a problem.

Stewart's biggest concern is running her against the boys, something he doesn't want to do. The consolation is that she gets a weight allowance of five pounds under the race conditions and will carry 114 pounds, including Brian Hernandez Jr.

Howard, meanwhile, is approaching the race with his usual poker face. Straw Hat took a while to make it through his entry-level allowance condition, but in his first try over the Fair Grounds turf course he was a game winner.

"That was a breakthrough race for him," said Howard. "He was kind of a lazy colt and we had to work on him a while to get him where we wanted him, but he's very good right now."

will carry 118 pounds with Robby Albarado.

Niall O'Callaghan is shipping in Medigating, the 119-pound highweight. A French-bred colt, Medigating finished a well-beaten fifth in the Grade 3 Tropical Park Derby in his first U.S. start, but turned in a bullet five-furlong work since and is getting Lasix for the first time. Larry Melancon rides.