02/26/2003 1:00AM

Strive to ship in for New Orleans Handicap

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NEW ORLEANS - The field for Sunday's New Orleans Handicap continued to grow Wednesday, with the connections of Strive announcing he will run, swelling the prospective field to 11.

Strive will ship from trainer Bill Mott's base at Payson Park, where he has been breezing at regular intervals. Strive finished second in his only start this year, a Gulfstream allowance race, and has raced in stakes only twice, finishing fifth in the Aventura at Gulfstream last spring and a better fourth last fall in the Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct. Jerry Bailey is expected to ride Strive.

Strive brings to four the number of shippers from Florida. Also expected to run are Florida-based Balto Star, Best of the Rest, and Booklet. Eddie Martin, aboard Balto Star in the Whirlaway Handicap, will retain the mount, trainer Todd Pletcher said. Eibar Coa rides Best of the Rest, while Pat Day will ride Booklet.

Fair Grounds officials said the defection of Medaglia d'Oro from Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap had not swayed the connections of three California horses scheduled to ship for the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. Olmodavor (Alex Solis), Sunday Break (Edgar Prado), and Tracemark (Kent Desormeaux) are scheduled to fly here Friday.

At Fair Grounds, Valhol (Donnie Meche) worked a bullet half-mile on Wednesday. Valhol's breeze was timed in 47.80, the fastest of 23 works at the distance.

"We didn't really mean for him to go that fast," said trainer Dallas Keen. "There were some horses up ahead of him, and he was trying to catch them. He did it easily, and he came out of it good."

The other locally based horses for the race are Bonapaw (Willie Martinez), Learned (Calvin Borel), and Mineshaft (Robby Albarado). Mineshaft worked an easy five furlongs in about 1:03 on Tuesday while Learned went five furlongs on Monday.

Louisiana Derby field at five

The Louisiana Derby has picked up another likely starter, Commander's Affair, a winner of two straight route races at Fair Grounds. Commander's Affair brings to five the number of likely starters in the March 9 Derby, a Grade 2 race with a $750,000 purse. Also expected to run are Badge of Silver, Funny Cide, Kafwain, and Lone Star Sky.

Fair Grounds officials are still hoping to attract two more horses to the race, but a likely short field is part of the reason trainer Bret Calhoun will point Commander's Affair to the race.

"I think there are two horses" - Kafwain and Badge of Silver - "who are going to slow the shippers from coming," said Calhoun. "Also, there's really nowhere else for me to run. I don't want to start shipping him this early. If I thought there would be a nonwinners-of-two allowance that would go, I'd be in there."

Commander's Affair has improved since he began running around two turns, and his allowance win was solid, if unspectacular. "I don't think he's the kind of horse Kafwain and Badge of Silver are," Calhoun said. "But I hope we can get a piece of the purse."

Meanwhile, Defrere's Vixen, third to Badge of Silver in the Risen Star, is passing the Louisiana Derby in favor of the March 22 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, trainer Steve Asmussen said.

"He came out of the race a little tired," said Asmussen. "His work the other day was a little dull. That's why we're waiting until March 22."

Political Risk needs a spot

Promising 3-year-old Political Risk was to have made his first start at two turns in an allowance race here on Friday, but the race failed to fill, leaving trainer Neil Howard wondering where, and when, Political Risk will race next.

Political Risk easily won a sprint race in his career debut and figures to improve with added distance. Howard was forced to scratch him from an earlier allowance race when Political Risk coughed the day of the race, and now the colt is ready to run with no place to go. Howard toyed with the idea of sending Political Risk to Oaklawn Park for the Southwest Stakes this weekend, but as of Wednesday was leaning away from that move.

Howard said Fair Grounds officials planned to bring Political Risk's race back as an extra in the coming days, and Howard remains hopeful of getting a start in during the coming week.

Premium Saltine tough to catch

Two first-level allowance sprints - one for boys, one for girls - are the best races on Fair Grounds's Friday card. The race for males is the eighth, and if Premium Saltine can get away with a slower pace than the suicidal one on which he raced Jan. 30, he will be tough to catch from post 1. Trained by Al Stall, Premium Saltine held on well for second last time out after contesting a half-mile in 44.80 seconds, one of the fastest splits this meet.

The ninth, for fillies and mares, drew seven horses, and throwing out even one of them isn't easy. Little Sophia just finished second here at this class level, and Key Approval won at first asking despite a troubled start.

* Chirac at Thetrack was the star of Wednesday's two training races. Showing good speed on a very wet track, Chirac at Thetrack sat just off the pace and moved to the lead under no urging turning into the stretch. He won the five-furlong race by eight lengths and was timed in 1:01.40. Bill Badgett trains Chirac at Thetrack.