01/02/2007 1:00AM

Student Council experiment remains ongoing

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Trainer Neil Howard is nothing if not patient, and the horses he trains tend to benefit from it. Take Student Council, who began his career on Aug. 28, 2004 at Saratoga by finishing last of 12, beaten almost 23 lengths. A couple months later, Student Council's close fourth of 12 at Keeneland suggested Howard had the horse going the right way, but he didn't race again for more than a year. In fact, it was not until this past June that Student Council won for the first time.

"I think the horse has got some talent, but he's been slow to mature," Howard said.

Student Council won two in a row in Kentucky in the fall, the first coming on the heels of a fifth-place turf finish, and when he starts in the featured ninth race on Thursday at Fair Grounds - a main-track route open to third-level allowance horses or $50,000 claimers - he also is exiting a turf race where he showed something less than his best.

"He's back on the main track, where I think he's happiest," said Howard.

Student Council was one of nine entered in the Thursday feature, where competition runs deep. The trainer Pat Mouton has two horses. Between them, He's Royal Dee looks better on paper than Desert Sea does. He's Royal Dee has just two starts in 2006, both sprints, and his best performances have come at two-turn trips.

And while Student Council figures to be favored under Robby Albarado, he is a less accomplished racehorse than Home of Stars, who is allowed to start in this spot only because the allowance conditions exclude wins in statebred-restricted company, of which Home of Stars has several. Home of Stars closed decently for third behind Devilment in a third-level turf allowance Nov. 25 - and, like Student Council, he may be a better horse on dirt.

Devilment also won Student Council's most recent start, the Buddy Diliberto Handicap on Dec. 16, and Student Council, racing with blinkers on, ran out of gas in the stretch after chasing the winner through a quick opening quarter-mile. Howard had planned to run Student Council in a dirt allowance race that failed to fill, and took a swing in the Diliberto for lack of a better option. "I also put blinkers on him, and I might have fooled around a little too much with him there," said Howard.

The blinkers come off Thursday. Student Council might have made his first start more than 28 months ago, but Howard still is tinkering, waiting to get the most out of his horse.