12/26/2003 12:00AM

Sugar Bowl certainty: Lots of speed

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NEW ORLEANS - The eight horses in Sunday's $60,000 Sugar Bowl Handicap at Fair Grounds last raced at six different tracks, and their form is the same way - all over the place. The Sugar Bowl is hard to sort out, but not the way the race shapes up. Wildcat Shoes has a high turn of foot and the rail, while Next Bandit has been the first-call leader in five of his six starts. They're headed the same place - straight to the front.

A speed duel could set the table for one of the stalkers, perhaps Two Down Automatic or Stalkerazzi. Or, either Wildcat Shoes or Next Bandit might be good enough to overcome a potentially negative race setup.

Friday afternoon, Wildcat Shoes was en route from trainer Jinks Fires's Oaklawn Park base, with Fires himself at the wheel of the truck pulling the colt's trailer. Wildcat Shoes, a Forest Wildcat homebred owned by Patricia Blass, is 2 for 2 since he began racing on Lasix, and he made all the running on the way to a Churchill Downs entry-level allowance win Nov. 29.

Still, Fires said he would have "preferred to have drawn the 4 or 5 hole. I really didn't want the one. The horse is doing good. I'm not sure about the horses he's beat, but I can say he has some talent."

He also has an important recent work. Fires said there's currently no clocker at Oaklawn, and Wildcat Shoes's recent six-furlong work in about 1:13 went unrecorded. "He galloped out real well," Fires said. "He kind of impressed me with that."

Next Bandit, off since September, must show he is more than an early-season 2-year-old. One of two horses in the race for trainer Bret Calhoun (the other, Xtra Jack, made his lone start in Mexico City), Next Bandit has won three times, but never at a distance greater than 5 1/2 furlongs.

Stalkerazzi has grown to look better even without racing since a second-place finish Nov. 15 at Churchill Downs. The colt who beat him there, Fire Slam, returned with a good second-place finish in the $1 million Delta Jackpot. Stalkerazzi sat third in his six-furlong career debut, and should get a similar trip in the Sugar Bowl.

So should Two Down Automatic, who won an entry-level allowance here Dec. 4 at bonus odds of 9-1 for trainer Steve Asmussen. "He's earned a chance in a race like this," Asmussen said.