02/27/2004 12:00AM

Ten Most Wanted primed for a big season

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NEW ORLEANS - Just before 9:30 on Friday morning at Fair Grounds, Ten Most Wanted walked out of a Fair Grounds barn and onto the racetrack, where he jogged one easy circuit. As he bounced the wrong way down the backstretch, the heads of exercise riders waiting along the outside fence on other horses swiveled to follow him.

There were good reasons why many thought Ten Most Wanted could win the Kentucky Derby last May and the Breeders' Cup Classic last October, one of them being the stunning appearance he makes in the morning.

Ten Most Wanted traveled here by plane Thursday, and if the trip took anything out of him, it wasn't showing Friday. A 4-year-old colt, Ten Most Wanted has the stature of a classic racehorse - long legs, long back, strong neck, and handsome head. Ten Most Wanted already was a big boy a year ago. Now he looks like the man.

His trainer, Wally Dollase, thinks Ten Most Wanted has a chance to become the top older horse in the country this year. His first step comes Sunday, when Ten Most Wanted starts as the likely favorite in the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap.

Ten Most Wanted had a wonderful 3-year-old season: He won the Travers, the Illinois Derby, and the Super Derby, and finished second in the Belmont and the Swaps. But he had two serious hiccups, and they colored his campaign. The first came in the Kentucky Derby. Ten Most Wanted had turned in a breakout performance a month earlier, winning the Illinois Derby by four lengths, and he was turning heads in his workouts at Churchill Downs the way he did Friday morning at Fair Grounds. But after a rough start in the Derby, Ten Most Wanted finished ninth.

The Breeders' Cup unfolded much the same, preceded by a good win and a string of positive workouts. Another troubled trip followed, this time leading to an eighth-place finish.

Both disappointments have specific explanations, according to Dollase and Pat Day, Ten Most Wanted's regular rider. In the Derby, the early bumping displaced a vertebra in Ten Most Wanted's back.

"He wouldn't even jog on the road when we checked him after the race," Dollase said.

The first turn of the Breeders' Cup wasn't any easier on Ten Most Wanted. With Funny Cide barreling forward, barely controlled, a chain reaction ensued, and Ten Most Wanted was knocked almost sideways.

"That took him totally out of his race," said Day. "It eliminated him."

If, indeed, the two big-league duds are excusable, Dollase might well be starting a future champion on his way Sunday.

"I know Medaglia d'Oro is out there, but you're looking at what might be the best horse in the country," Dollase said.

Ten Most Wanted hasn't raced in the four months since the Breeders' Cup, but that shouldn't be an impediment.

"I'm pretty keen on the way Wally trains a horse," said Day. "I think he'll really have him ready to run."

Ten Most Wanted's pattern of workouts looks sensational. In February alone, he has logged 23 furlongs worth of breezes at Hollywood Park. On Feb. 19, he shaded 1:12 for six furlongs, and on Feb. 6, he went seven-eighths in 1:25.40.

"He's dead fit," Dollase said. "He's not thin, he's not reedy. I've taken this amount of time to get him ready."

Dollase's other option for Ten Most Wanted's seasonal bow was the Santa Anita Handicap. At 1 1/4 miles, that race plays into Ten Most Wanted's strength - stamina. Dollase says he believes Ten Most Wanted would be as effective at distances of 1 1/2 miles and beyond.

"He has terrific air," he said.

But Dollase wants to keep Ten Most Wanted away from Santa Anita, the scene of last fall's Breeders' Cup, at least for now.

"He's had so many bad experiences at Santa Anita," Dollase said. "I wanted to start him back on the Fair Grounds track. He did so well back East last year on that type of track, mentally as well as physically."

Dollase has allowed himself to look down the road with Ten Most Wanted, whose next start could come in the Oaklawn Park Handicap. "That's the whole game - dreams," he said. "You have to dream with a horse."