01/01/2004 12:00AM

Two fillies try to exceed modest expectations

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NEW ORLEANS - It took Sister Swank some time to get out of her trainer's second string, and Steady Course needed five tries to win a maiden race, but these are the fillies to be reckoned with Saturday in the $60,000 Thelma Stakes at Fair Grounds.

They join Movant, Turn to Lass, Speedy Sonata, and Cryptos Best in a six-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies that lacks a single stakes winner. On established class, it is difficult to throw out any of them, but the perception is Sister Swank and Steady Course could be a cut above.

In August, many of the trainer Steve Asmussen's best horses were in New York and Kentucky, but Sister Swank was at Louisiana Downs, where she won her maiden at first asking and finished second despite a troubled trip in her first start with winners. Asmussen took notice, giving her a breather and pointing for Fair Grounds, where she impressively won an allowance sprint on opening day.

Sister Swank, owned by William Heiligbrodt, may evolve into a route horse, but she is smallish, and Asmussen has been hesitant to push onward in distance. Still, Sister Swank has trained well, and Asmussen suggested this week that she could show more early speed than in her recent win.

"She's very sharp now," he said. "She's much more horse now than she was after her second start. She's in her feed tub more, and she takes training better."

Steady Course has trained as quickly as a horse can over the Fair Grounds surface, breezing five furlongs in 1:00 on Dec. 20, and coming back a week later with a 59.40-second work, the fastest of 46 that day.

Fourth in her debut, Steady Course finished second three times before easily beating 11 rivals Nov. 23 at Churchill.

"You can't get frustrated," said trainer Dallas Stewart. "You have to wait for them to put it all together. Obviously, she's never run in a stakes, but she's competitive, and she's been training very well down here."

Movant won a Dec. 13 allowance here, but had to work for it, while Turn to Lass comes off a solid third in the $250,000 Delta Princess. In her 13th start, Cryptos Best visits her ninth racetrack. Speedy Sonata appears to be a better horse on turf.

Storybook Kid quite a saga

Since Saturday's Colonel Bradley Handicap, the first step toward the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap (formerly the Explosive Bid) on March 21, drew a deep field of 11, it will be easy to lose track of a horse like Storybook Kid, who returns to the grass course where he first blossomed two years ago.

Trainer Alvin Sider snatched Storybook Kid from a $7,500 conditioned claiming race in December 2001, switched him to grass, and had a great run for the next two years. For Sider and the C and R Stable, Storybook Kid won 8 of 24 starts, but on closing day here last season, he was claimed for $40,000.

Rags-to-riches horse stories usually end in rapid decline, but Storybook Kid has been as good to his present connections, owner Stanley Seelig and trainer Pat Mouton, as he was to Sider. He won two in a row after the claim, finished third in the $250,000 Dallas Turf Cup, and then won the Independence Handicap.

"I had no intention of claiming the horse," Mouton said. "The owner called me the day before and told me to look in the Racing Form, and that he'd meet me at the racetrack. I'd seen the horse race, but I'd never looked at him to claim him."

What Mouton and Seelig got was a horse who's all heart on the racetrack, and little but trouble in the barn. Storybook Kid resides in a screened-in stall to keep him from reaching out and hurting someone. He kicks, bites, lashes out, and generally discourages human contact.

"You have to really be careful with him," Mouton said. "I guess he's been that way his whole life. It's just his personality."

And finally, Storybook Kid went off form, finishing a distant eighth of 11 the last time he raced, in the Sept. 21 Louisiana Downs Handicap.

"He was getting a little sour, so I gave him 45 days away from the races," Mouton said. "This is a tough spot to come back. I have no idea how he'll run off a layoff, because he's never really had one before."

Geier has shot with Act of War

Greg Geier still was smiling early this week. But no doubt, winning a race would enhance his mood.

When Gene Cilio died late last fall, Geier took over Cilio's Fair Grounds string of horses. For all intents and purposes, he already had been running the barn, but the switch from No. 1 assistant to the guy calling the shots - the trainer whose name appears next to the horses - is a major one. And Geier's transition has not been helped by starting off with eight defeats.

"I'm not frustrated, but yeah, it'd be nice to win one," Geier said.

He has a chance in the Colonel Bradley. His horse is Act of War, whose 2-for-9 season belies serious progress as a racehorse. Act of War is a tricky horse to ride, with one big quarter-mile run that must be perfectly timed. Jockey Curt Bourque has been working on it all year, and Act of War has come close in Grade 3 stakes such as the Arlington Handicap and the Kentucky Cup Turf. He finished sixth the last time he started, in the River City Nov. 16 at Churchill, but raced just a couple lengths behind the leaders, and when Act of War sticks close to the early pace, his late kick suffers.

"He won't be two lengths off of it again this time, I can tell you that," Geier said.

And the slower Act of War runs early in the Bradley, the quicker Geier may get his first win.

* Sunday's feature is the Truly Bound, a handicap for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles. Racing officials had to scramble to attract nominations for this race, and a short field is anticipated.