01/04/2006 1:00AM

Two surprises in big-race draw

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The field for Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 was in flux right up until entry time on Wednesday, but the race came away with a competitive group of eight older horses, including Alumni Hall and West Virginia, who were not considered definite starters earlier in the week.

Normally run in March, this year's New Orleans Handicap is not only being run earlier, but also at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La., where Fair Grounds is conducting an abbreviated meet due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Brass Hat and Mr. Trieste are the co-highweights at 117 pounds in the 1 1/8-mile handicap. Brass Hat drew the rail under Willie Martinez, while Mr. Trieste will break from post 6 under Ken Tohill. The New Orleans Handicap is the richest race of the meet - the 10th on an 11-race card that also includes the $75,000 Red Camelia and a $60,000 overnight stakes for fillies and mares, the Pan Zareta.

Brass Hat shipped into Louisiana Downs from Turfway Park in Kentucky on Dec. 27. Brass Hat's rail draw sat well with his trainer, William "Buff" Bradley.

"That's fine," he said. "It didn't matter where he was, though, because he can run from anywhere."

Brass Hat won the $50,000 Prairie Bayou at 1 1/8 miles at Turfway in his last start, Dec. 17. Arriving here more than a week ago, he has breezed over the track, going five furlongs in 1:03.20 on Saturday.

"He's a very good shipper and feels right at home here," said Bradley.

Mr. Trieste will be looking for his ninth straight win on Saturday, while making his graded-stakes debut. He was to van from his base at Sunland Park in New Mexico, on Thursday, said his trainer, Gary Cross. It is about a 14-hour drive from Sunland to Louisiana Downs.

The New Orleans field, from the rail with riders, is: Brass Hat; Dixie Meister, Roman Chapa; M B Sea, Carlos Gonzalez; Silver Axe, James Graham; Sanctuary's Omooni, Jeff Burningham; Mr. Trieste; Alumni Hall, Robby Albarado; and West Virginia, Eddie Castro.

West Virginia, trained by Todd Pletcher, will add blinkers for the race.

The forecast is for sunny skies and a high of 63 degrees. Post time for the 81st running of the New Orleans is 4:28 p.m. Central.