03/13/2007 11:00PM

Trainer upbeat after Cloudy's Knight's near-miss


Even to a casual racing fan, the stretch at Fair Grounds seems to go on forever, even on a turf course smaller in diameter than the dirt track. Imagine how trainer Jim McMullen felt last Saturday as Cloudy's Knight, a grinder of a horse if ever there was one, slowly caught up to the leaders in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap.

That $500,000 must have seemed like a pot of gold over a rainbow to a horseman who, in 2006, had six winners and stable earnings of about $191,000 during the whole season. McMullen's richest year as a trainer came in 1995, when the stable won almost $440,000. If Cloudy's Knight got there, first prize was $300,000.

"At the eighth pole, I sure thought he would win," McMullen said Wednesday morning, not smarting at all over the fact that Cloudy's Knight's sustained rally fell a half-length shy of Einstein. After all, Einstein is a Grade 1 winner, 7-year-old Cloudy's Knight did earn a $100,000 check in the best performance of his career, and the horse is - for all intents and purposes - on loan from Chicago-based trainer Frank Kirby. McMullen said Wednesday that Cloudy's Knight would return to Kirby's barn following his next start, which is scheduled to come in the $200,000 Elkhorn Stakes, a 1 1/2-mile turf race April 27 at Keeneland.

"All along, when they sent him down to me they said he'd go back to Mr. Kirby," McMullen said.

McMullen insists the Muniz result merely roused excitement, not disappointment, even though Cloudy's Knight was taking ground away from Einstein stride by stride. With this chestnut mountain of a horse, there is no quick burst of speed, just a long run that can go on for what seems like miles.

"He just kind of gets in that gear and wears them down," said McMullen. "He's really been training well in New Orleans, and I think he'd have a good shot at Keeneland."

Good news, bad news for Amoss

Good news and bad came from the Tom Amoss barn this week at Fair Grounds. Baghdaria, who Amoss hopes can be a player at the Grade 1 level, beginning with her next start, emerged from an easy 2007 debut at Delta Downs in good order, and is on track for the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap on April 7 at Oaklawn Park. But Whatdreamsrmadeof, who managed to earn a graded stakes placing with a third on Saturday in the Fair Grounds Oaks, came out of the race with a fractured sesamoid, and has been retired, Amoss said.

"It's career ending, but she won't need surgery," Amoss said.

Whatdreamsrmadeof, owned by Casa Farms, won 2 of 7 starts, and had been fourth in the Jan. 13 Tiffany Lass.

Baghdaria, making her first start since the Breeders' Cup Distaff, waltzed to a 7 1/4-length victory in the Sweetheart Stakes on March 2 at Delta, and came out of the race in good condition, Amoss said. Baghdaria breezed a half-mile in 49 seconds on Monday at Fair Grounds.

Also back in the Amoss barn is Rush Bay, who got a substantial winter break after a strong fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Turf. A late-developing long-distance grass horse, Rush Bay had the lead in the upper stretch of the BC Turf before giving way late. Rush Bay is galloping regularly at Fair Grounds, but Amoss said the horse probably wouldn't have his first workout of the year until the stable shipped north to Kentucky after the Fair Grounds meet.

Asmussen puts three in Fortin Handicap

Amoss won the last two older female route stakes - neither of them major - of the Fair Grounds meet with Delicate Dynamite, but said after the last of those victories that Delicate Dynamite had earned a shot at bigger game. And indeed, Delicate Dynamite was not among six horses entered in Saturday's Fortin Handicap, a $75,000, one-mile dirt stakes for fillies and mares.

With the best Fair Grounds-based horses in the division racing elsewhere, this division already was watered down, and in the absence of Delicate Dynamite and Eyes on Eddy, who finished second to her in both recent stakes, the Fortin came out looking like, well, a Steve Asmussen festival.

Asmussen has not one, not two, but three of the six horses in the Fortin, with Rolling Sea perhaps the best of the trio. The race also includes Stormy Destin, an easy sprint allowance winner in her most recent race.

Surface for feature up in the air

Picking the winner of the ninth-race feature on Friday at Fair Grounds might be a piece of cake - if a handicapper had any firm idea of who actually would run in the race. Nine were entered in a second-level sprint allowance carded for about 5 1/2 furlongs on turf. But there is plenty of rain in the New Orleans forecast this week, and Friday's race 9 could easily get moved to the main track, in which case the race would have a completely different look than it does on turf.

For starters, Music School was entered main-track-only by trainer Neil Howard, and almost certainly would be favored in an off-the-turf situation. Unless, that is, Indian Chant, with high speed figures from the Southern California circuit, gets the call from trainer Tom Amoss, who entered three horses in race 9. Indian Chant is part of a Maggi Moss-owned entry with Forest Phantom. Forest Phantom, another Southern California import, faded last out in a turf route, his first start since shipping into Fair Grounds, but has turf sprint form that makes him look like the horse to beat on grass. A possible upsetter? How about the Amoss-trained Reverential, who was coming up short in turf routes earlier in the meet.