03/02/2004 12:00AM

Testing ground at Fair Grounds

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LAS VEGAS - After a slow weekend for 3-year-olds, the Triple Crown trail heats up again with the Louisiana Derby on Sunday and San Rafael Stakes on Saturday.

The Louisiana Derby was first run in 1920, and was a nine-furlong prep for the Kentucky Derby until 1988, when it was shortened to its current distance, 1 1/16 miles. Past winners of this historic stakes include Northfields (1971); Master Derby (1975), who won the Preakness Stakes and finished third in the Belmont Stakes; Golden Act (1979); Risen Star (1988), who captured the Preakness and Belmont after a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby; Dispersal (1989); and Grindstone (1996), who went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Last year, the Louisiana Derby played a major role in the Kentucky Derby, as the winner Peace Rules and the third-place finisher, Funny Cide, reversed that order in the Kentucky Derby.

This year's renewal at Fair Grounds features many well-regarded colts who are developing quickly, with Risen Star Stakes winner, Gradepoint, leading the way.

Gradepoint has now won three races at 1 1/16 miles, and his Risen Star victory was better than it looked. Despite being at a disadvantage in a race void of speed, Gradepoint rallied into a slow pace and still defeated the favored Mr. Jester. Gradepoint is one of two sons of A.P. Indy in the Louisiana Derby. The other is Shaniko, who impressed winning a Gulfstream maiden race at 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 8, defeating the late-blooming Eddington by 6 3/4 lengths. Eddington has since won back-to-back races, most recently an impressive allowance last Saturday. Shaniko finished second behind Swingforthefences in his last race, a 1 1/8-mile allowance on the Fountain of Youth undercard, but like so many lightly raced colts, this $550,000 yearling purchase should move forward off that performance.

After three consecutive second-place finishes, Bob Baffert's highly regarded Wimbledon finally woke up on Feb. 8 and won his maiden at Santa Anita by eight lengths at one mile in 1:36.33. Wimbledon is a son of Metropolitan Handicap winner Wild Rush, an exciting young stallion whose star is rapidly ascending. Wimbledon is just learning what the game is all about and may be ready to jump up to the next level.

Shadowland, a son of a European miler, Distant View, is another colt on the rise. A winner of his career debut in England last June at six furlongs on the turf, he did not race until December, winning his U.S. debut at Turfway Park at one mile. While he did not threaten Fire Slam when second in the Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 24, Shadowland is a good fit at this distance and has plenty of room for improvement. Owned by Team Valor Stables and trained by Ralph Nicks, he is a stablemate of Tiger Hunt (Kris S.) who is better bred to get the Kentucky Derby distance.

There will be plenty of support for Borrego, who finished second to Master David in the Sham Stakes. By one of the world's leading stallions, El Prado, he is out of a mare by 1991 Kentucky Derby winner, Strike the Gold, and he has found new life since switching from turf to dirt in his last two efforts.

Fire Slam has a sprinter/miler pedigree (Grand Slam out of a Salt Lake mare), but has looked strong thus far despite battling a quarter crack. A very talented colt, he will be tested in this field and his Kentucky Derby hopes rest on his performance here.

If Breakaway joins his stablemate Gradepoint, trainer Neil Howard will have a strong two-punch entry. Breakaway was very impressive winning an allowance race on the Risen Star undercard, and while offspring of Silver Deputy are not particularly suited to 1 1/4 miles, they are very formidable at the Louisiana Derby distance.

Like Shaniko, Pollard's Vision is trained by Todd Pletcher, and the Louisiana Derby distance may be as far as he wants to go. By renowned speed influence Carson City, Pollard's Vision was dominant winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance on Feb. 8 at Gulfstream. His dam is a full sister to stakes winner Bowman's Band.

Lion Heart returning in San Rafael

The much-anticipated return of undefeated Lion Heart is the main attraction of Saturday's San Rafael at Santa Anita, but he faces some promising late-blooming colts and must contend with the high early speed of Hosco, winner of the San Miguel Stakes and runner-up in the San Vicente Stakes. A winner of three lifetime races, including the Hollywood Prevue and Hollywood Futurity, Lion Heart is by Tale of the Cat, and despite his brilliance thus far, is not Kentucky Derby material.

Quinton's Gold Rush is developing quickly for Mike Mitchell, and this son of Wild Rush is poised to upset Lion Heart in this spot off a scintillating maiden victory, where he easily defeated Wimbledon. His second dam is a stakes winner, Lady in Silver (Silver Hawk).

Two turf horses are being tested to see if they can transfer their good grass form to dirt. Castledale, bred to run long on turf, won the Generous Stakes on turf in his U.S. debut, and is by Peintre Celebre, a European Horse of the Year, and is out of a Silver Hawk mare. Lucky Pulpit, who ran second in the Santa Catalina behind St Averil, beating Master David, is still a better turf prospect. His sire, Pulpit, is a versatile stallion, getting winners on all surfaces, but Lucky Pulpit gets a strong dose of grass from his damsire, Cozzene.

Imperialism (Langfuhr), Hosco (Honour and Glory), Consecrate (Silver Charm), and Spellbinder (Tale of the Cat) need big races to justify sending them on to the Santa Anita Derby. Spellbinder, a half-brother to Futurity Stakes winner Whywhywhy, is the third-string sophomore in Richard Mandella's barn, behind Action This Day and Minister Eric.