03/19/2004 1:00AM

Turf stars of future

Trainer Bobby Frankel has sent in Nothing to Lose (above) and Burning Sun for the Grade 2, $500,000 Mervin Muniz at 1 1/8 miles on turf.

NEW ORLEANS - Storming Home has retired. Johar's career is in limbo. High Chaparral never even lived in this country. Yes, the older turf division is wobbling into the meat of the racing season. The Mervin Muniz Handicap has come at the right moment.

There are no current stars in the Muniz - just future ones. Four of the starters are 4-year-olds. Two 5-year-olds, including possible favorite , are in the midst of winter renaissances.

The parts add up to a hugely competitive race. Four pounds separate top from bottom in the Grade 2, $500,000 Muniz, a nine-furlong grass race formerly called the Explosive Bid. Mystery Giver is the highweight, but few will see him as the horse to beat, partly since there is so much promise here, but mostly because Bobby Frankel is in town.

Frankel won the New Orleans Handicap three weeks ago with Peace Rules. He has sent two for this race, Burning Sun and one of the 4-year-olds, Nothing to Lose. Both are qualified, but the betting public might prefer Burning Sun. A 5-year-old bred and owned by the powerful Juddmonte Farms, Burning Sun showed promise at 3, winning a Group 2 in France, but his 4-year-old season was a wash, with three starts and no wins.

Frankel said he received few details about the trajectory of Burning Sun's career, just that the horse had been given a break last summer and was coming to join his stable.

Burning Sun's form suggested class, and Frankel believes the horse has it. Earlier this week, he compared Burning Sun to Beat Hollow, the Grade 1 winner who finished second in this race two years ago. Burning Sun's U.S. debut, a half-length victory in a second-level allowance on Feb. 29 at Santa Anita, is not outstanding on paper, but Frankel noted the race's slow pace, and that Burning Sun had finished full of run.

"The rider [Alex Solis] said he could have gotten them at any time," Frankel said.

If Frankel expects a step forward from Burning Sun, he is not ignoring Nothing to Lose. "He's a good horse, too," Frankel said. Nothing to Lose, away from the races for close to a year, made his 4-year-old and Frankel debut Jan. 19 with a second to rising star Sweet Return in the Grade 2 San Marcos Handicap.

The Floridians are good, too. Proud Man, as good as ever at 6, won the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf last out. Political Attack comes off two good tries in Grade 3 company. Willard Straight, a Todd Pletcher-trained 4-year-old, will test his powerful stretch kick against the best horses he's faced.

But the East Coaster to watch might be Silver Tree, who equaled Gulfstream's one-mile course record Feb. 21 in his first start of the season. Last year, Silver Tree won the Virginia Derby at 1 1/4 miles. Lying smack in the middle is the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Muniz.

"He's a very versatile horse," said trainer Bill Mott.

Silver Tree, who should be better at 4 than he was at 3, has Jerry Bailey, the rail, and the tactical speed to stay close to a moderate pace.

He must deal with a quietly excellent group of local horses, headed by Mystery Giver, Skate Away, and Herculated. Mystery Giver beat Skate Away by a neck in the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap; neither has won a race of the Muniz's stature, but both enter in top form.

Mystery Giver has teased like this before, without ever fully following through, but his last race was excellent, and Mystery Giver could even move forward Sunday. He is trained by Richie Scherer.

This will be Skate Away's sixth start at the meet, but his form is plowing forward. Beaten a nose in the Mardi Gras Handicap after his narrow loss in the Fair Grounds BC, Skate Away has continued thriving.

"He's an alligator right now, and that's how I want it," said trainer Jeff Trosclair.

The Fair Grounds turf course has been quick and very firm, though there is a 20 percent chance of rain Sunday afternoon. Even less likely is a taxing pace. The race has little speed beyond the tactical foot of Majestic Thief and Political Attack, and the horses should be tightly packed turning for home. As good as these horses look, luck should play a major role in the Muniz.