03/19/2004 1:00AM

Toughest test for Herculated

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NEW ORLEANS - Herculated earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 104 in his last start. Great. Seen standing tied to the back of his stall Friday morning, Herculated looked the picture - gleaming coat, sleek musculature, ears alert. Wonderful.

For all the things that have gone right for him this winter, and for all the obvious talent Herculated has displayed in his young career, nobody, not even those closest to him, knows how Herculated stacks up Sunday in the Mervin Muniz Handicap.

That is always the case with horses rising in class, be it a maiden moving up to face winners, or a claiming horse switching to allowance company. Herculated's situation is magnified because he has run so well in three turf races here this meet - and because he is stepping into a race with a $500,000 purse.

"The barometer is when you finally put your foot in the water and find out," said Mike Stidham, Herculated's trainer. "You can train good, look good, do all those things, but until they get tested for class, you just don't know."

It is impossible not to have been impressed with Herculated, a Louis Quatorze 4-year-old bred and owned by the Oak Crest Farm of Jack Hodge. He showed good things here last season, winning his career debut, a two-turn dirt race, by five lengths, and following up with an easy allowance win on grass. Herculated went into the Arlington meet with high expectations, but left it with two losses - the last an eighth-place finish - and a touchy ankle.

"It was very disappointing," Stidham said. "We knew he had a lot of talent, but we knew if we pressed on, we were going to ruin him. The owner, Jack Hodge, gave us free rein to do what we needed, and it paid off. He came back bigger and stronger than ever."

It did indeed. Herculated got back into action in late December. In a second-level allowance, he stalked a solid pace, swooping to the lead coming off the turn and winning comfortably. Up in class to the next allowance level, Herculated won again, this time running an entirely different kind of race. He ran near the back of the field in a paceless race, launching a furious stretch rally to win by three-quarters of a length. Up another notch in class three weeks ago, Herculated was back closer to the pace, easily collaring and running past the Grade 2 winner Royal Spy.

Now it is on to the next level, but Herculated, unlike many horses in this era, has gotten good and stayed good, giving his connections a chance to work their horse through his conditions before throwing him in tough.

"You can rush with it, because you worry about when one's going to start caving in on you," Stidham said.

So far, Herculated has not caved. Now it is time to find out where he belongs.

Mr. Archibald steps up

Thursday's ninth race was the 4-year-old debut of Midway Road, second in the 2003 Preakness Stakes. Less well understood was that it would be the coming-out party for the Louisiana-bred horse Mr. Archibald.

Mr. Archibald, a hulking chestnut with a humble pedigree, suffered from chronic physical problems as a young horse. But he ran very fast winning a pair of allowance routes last fall at Louisiana Downs, and his connections came into the Fair Grounds meet with high hopes. Not until Thursday were they satisfied.

Facing strong open allowance horses, Mr. Archibald dueled on a hot pace, 46.93 seconds for a half-mile, but held his ground into the stretch. Midway Road got a head in front turning for home, but Mr. Archibald battled on, regaining control inside the eighth pole and going on to a 2 1/4-length win. His time of 1:38.79 for one mile and 40 yards missed the track record by one-fifth of a second.

Dance to Destiny, a Mark Frostad-trained son of the champion mare Dance Smartly, finished a good second in his first start of the season. Colonial Colony, another comeback horse, rallied for third, as Midway Road flattened out and finished fourth.

"He looks like he's on his way," Mr. Archibald's trainer, Bret Calhoun, said Friday. "I think a lot of people thought he was kind of a speed freak who needed the lead. There was nothing cheap about the way he ran yesterday."

Calhoun, somewhat surprised at Mr. Archibald's victory in such a tough spot, had not plotted a schedule. Possibilities include the Texas Mile, a lesser open stakes race, or a return to Louisiana-bred company.

Timo to race next at Keeneland

Timo, the promising 3-year-old grass horse, is scheduled to make his seasonal debut in the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes on April 2 at Keeneland, trainer Bill Badgett said. Timo was entered in and scratched from an allowance race here last week.

Timo has not raced since a tough-trip loss in the Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1. Badgett said he turned in a strong six-furlong dirt workout here earlier this week.

* Badge of Silver, pointing for the Grade 1 Carter Handicap, worked six furlongs in a sizzling 1:11.60 here Friday.