Updated on 09/17/2011 11:09PM

Time for Mr. Trieste to step way up

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After firing off eight consecutive wins in New Mexico, Mr. Trieste takes his show to the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs, where he will make his graded stakes debut in Saturday's $400,000 .

The Grade 2 race represents something of a full-circle move for Mr. Trieste, who seemed on the path to big things as a young horse starting out in Kentucky. But one afternoon in 2004 he was dropped in for a claiming price of $30,000. Richard Lueck scooped him up and sent him to trainer Gary Cross in New Mexico, and in nine starts for them he has won eight races, including four consecutive stakes since October.

"It's time to step him up," said Lueck. "He's earned it. He's as good right now as he's ever going to be and to be real frank, we've never got to the bottom of this horse. We don't know how good he is."

"We're trying to raise up to the next bar," said Cross. "You never know unless you try."

, a 5-year-old son of Old Trieste and Louisiana stakes winner Angel's Tearlet, has a stallion career in front of him. Lueck started searching for a graded opportunity for Mr. Trieste in the fall, and at one point had considered the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

"We've been looking for a spot, and this is about as close as we can get without having to fly him," said Lueck.

Last year, the New Orleans Handicap was run in March. But this year, it had to be pushed up to January to fit into the confines of an abbreviated Fair Grounds meet being held at Louisiana Downs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The 1 1/8-mile race drew nine horses a year ago, but is expected to have fewer this year, with some of the division's top horses not yet ready for competition after winter layoffs. As of Tuesday, the probables include Brass Hat, Dixie Meister, M B Sea, and Silver Axe.

Aside from a graded credential, the New Orleans Handicap offers Mr. Trieste a rare break in weights. He has been assigned 117 pounds for the New Orleans Handicap, the richest race of the meet, compared with the 126 he would have had to tote had he been entered for Saturday's $50,000 Winsham Lad Handicap at Sunland Park. In his most recent start, Mr. Trieste carried 125 pounds when he won the $106,000 Zia Park Distance Championship at 1 1/8 miles Dec. 4.

Lueck and Cross followed Mr. Trieste long before ever claiming him. Purchased for $160,000 as a yearling, the horse began his career at Churchill Downs in May 2003 with a second-place finish in a maiden special weight race. A month later, he won his maiden at the track in a field that included eventual Grade 2 winner Bwana Charlie.

"He had beaten a real good field when he was a 2-year-old and then they [laid] him off for a while," said Lueck. "I don't know why, but I'm sure he hurt himself."

Mr. Trieste did not return to the races until March 2004, and was second in an entry-level allowance at Turfway Park. One start later, he was third in another allowance, this time behind future Grade 2 winner Sir Shackleton at Keeneland. A few races later, Mr. Trieste turned up for a tag at Ellis Park, and was claimed in August 2004.

He ran second in the $30,000 Ruidoso Thoroughbred Derby a month later, then won the $34,000 Albuquerque Derby, also in September 2004. Following the race, he was laid off because of a physical setback, and upon his return reeled off seven more wins, including the $65,000 Kachina Mile and the $81,000 Veterans at 1 1/16 miles, races in which he set track records at the new Zia Park in Hobbs, N.M.

Mr. Trieste has won 10 of 18 starts and $331,292.

"He's developing into a pretty impressive colt to me," said jockey Ken Tohill, who has been aboard Mr. Trieste for all of his wins in New Mexico. "On the good horses, there's just no bottom in them. They don't get tired. He's a really strong animal.

"I think he's ready," added Tohill. "I think he has matured. Gary Cross and I were talking the other day about how the good horses seem to develop in their 5-year-old year, and I think he's just right on schedule to put in a pretty impressive performance."

Lueck plans to give him that shot. "We're stepping up there in rarified air and we will just have to find out if we're good enough to win," he said. "You never know until you get your foot over the fence and go find out."