03/08/2005 12:00AM

Testing ground for late developers

Lou Hodges Jr.
The late-running Scipion, shown with Gary Stevens, is gaining experience over a long home stretch similar to the one at Churchill Downs.

NEW ORLEANS - Because of its its relatively short 1 1/16-mile distance and its spot on the calendar eight weeks before the Kentucky Derby, the Louisiana Derby tends to attract 3-year-olds trying to establish their credentials around two turns and late-developing classics hopefuls.

Scipion and Real Dandy, the first two finishers in the Risen Star Stakes, fall into the latter category. Vicarage and Risen Star third-place finisher Storm Surge have yet to prove their two-turn prowess.

Before he won the Risen Star, only had a maiden victory to his credit, but his handlers knew he had the talent to win a graded stakes. Patrick Biancone took a patient route to the Risen Star, the final prep for the Louisiana Derby.

"Patrick took his time with him and let him develop," said assistant trainer Pierre Bellocq Jr. "He's grown over the winter and he's filled out nicely."

The Louisiana Derby is an appealing race for some trainers because the stretch at Fair Grounds is 1,346 feet, the longest in the United States, and provides valuable experience for what lies ahead. The stretch at Churchill Downs is 1,234 feet.

Biancone had the Louisiana Derby in mind for Scipion all along, in large part because he thought the late-running colt would benefit from the length of the Fair Grounds stretch.

"His style of running tends to benefit from the long stretch," said Bellocq. "He's the type of horse that it takes him a little while to get going. The longer the stretch the better. The long stretch at Fair Grounds really suits him, and the stretch at Churchill Downs is also long, so this is a good preparation for the Kentucky Derby."

has developed step by step for trainer Steve Asmussen, bypassing such stablemates as the earlier-maturing Smooth Bid and Actxecutive, whose 3-year-old

campaign has yet to begin due to a variety of problems. Real Dandy blossomed in the Risen Star at the same distance as the Louisiana Derby with a strong run for second place.

"He's more mature, stronger and healthier," Asmussen said of Real Dandy's development.

Asmussen won the Louisiana Derby in 2001 with Fifty Stars.

"There are a lot of similarities between Fifty Stars and Real Dandy, from top to bottom," said Asmussen. "Both horses have been better the further they go. Fifty Stars was third in the Lecomte, fourth in the Risen Star, then he won the Louisiana Derby. He trained well and had the advantage of being a local horse; the seas parted that day and he won. Also Bob Zollars, who owns Real Dandy, was one of the owners of Fifty Stars. We're going to try to catch a lightning bug in the bottle twice."

Asmussen can see the Louisiana Derby as a stepping-stone in Real Dandy's development.

"Your ultimate goal is to win as many races with the horse as he's capable of," he said. "This horse has a number of big races potentially in his future. The longer he goes the better he gets. He's the type of horse you're always looking for."

For some horses, the Louisiana Derby provides an opportunity to get in a two-turn race without having to run nine furlongs. At Gulfstream Park, for example, all two-turn races are run at nine furlongs or longer.

Todd Pletcher will start Vicarage, a stablemate of Proud Accolade, who spiked a fever last weekend and will miss Saturday's race. The Louisiana Derby will be Vicarage's first start around two turns.

"We felt that the one and a sixteenth miles was an attractive distance," said Pletcher. "The timing of the race is good. It's time to see how he handles two turns on the dirt."

Questions about Storm Surge's distance limitations have dogged trainer Dallas Stewart ever since the Storm Cat colt lost his first attempt around two turns as the favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last November. Stewart then brought Storm Surge to Fair Grounds for its 3-year-old series. He won the six-furlong Sugar Bowl handily, then proved he could rate around two turns in the one-mile Lecomte. He failed in his second attempt at 1 1/16 miles in the Risen Star, but Stewart hopes he will benefit from the experience and take another step forward in the Louisiana Derby.

"He's growing, but it's in strength," said Stewart, who won the 1999 Louisiana Derby with Kimberlite Pipe. "He's not tall, but he's getting stronger all the time. Every time he runs, no matter how hard, he comes back bouncing and ready for more. That's an extremely good sign, a sign he's getting stronger as he goes. He got a little tired at the end in the Risen Star and those horses caught him, but I expect him to improve."

He and the rest of the trainers with horses in Saturday's race are hoping that continued improvement in the Louisiana Derby will keep them on the Kentucky Derby trail.