02/05/2009 1:00AM

Tough way for My Pal Charlie to start '09

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NEW ORLEANS - Theoretically, the Mineshaft Handicap is a prep race for the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap, but to look at the horses entered, Saturday's race might as well be the New Orleans Handicap.

"If the same field assembles for the New Orleans Handicap, I think they'd be happy," said Al Stall, who trains Mineshaft starter My Pal Charlie.

A spot this tough was not exactly what Stall had in mind when he targeted the Grade 3, $125,000 Mineshaft for My Pal Charlie's 2009 debut. The 1 1/16-mile dirt race includes Good and Lucky, Secret Getaway, and Honest Man, the top three finishers from the Jan. 10 Louisiana Handicap, as well as Grasshopper, who impressively won the Mineshaft last year and is set to make his first start since August.

"He's training really well," trainer Neil Howard said of Grasshopper, who won the 2008 Mineshaft following a similar layoff. "Physically, he's ready to go. Mentally, the horse has never been better."

My Pal Charlie cleared the maiden ranks while racing for a $50,000 claiming price last season at Fair Grounds, but quickly got better than that, finishing second in the Louisiana Derby. But My Pal Charlie's best came late last year, when he won the Grade 2 Super Derby and finished a close fourth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile on a synthetic track. My Pal Charlie sports a flawless work pattern for his comeback, and should be forwardly placed Saturday.

"He's a fresh horse," said Stall. "He grabs the bit and goes."

Honest Man did well to finish third in the Louisiana Handicap - his first race in 14 weeks - after setting a torrid pace.

"He was a little too aggressive, a lot less relaxed than he normally goes," said trainer Larry Jones. "He was churning and burning."

Five-year-old Honest Man has raced only 12 times, and Jones believes the horse could climb the handicap ranks this season.

"Hopefully he'll keep improving," Jones said. "Talent-wise, he can play with the big boys."

Good and Lucky won for the fourth time in six Fair Grounds starts when he captured the Louisiana Handicap by one length over Secret Getaway.

"He seems to always go out and run his race," said trainer Josie Carroll. "The question is if he's good enough for these horses."

Secret Getaway sharply won the Tenacious Handicap earlier in the meet, but might have regressed slightly when he finished second to Good and Lucky last month.