01/30/2003 1:00AM

When it comes to his star, Block is willing to share

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NEW ORLEANS - Not many trainers willingly part with the star of their stable. But the last two winters, Chris Block has waved a fond farewell to Mystery Giver, sending him into the Fair Grounds barn of Richie Scherer.

Block's choice is easier to make because there's no question he will get his horse back when the winter ends. Mystery Giver was bred by Block's parents, David and Patricia, and is owned by a Block family partnership.

Still, Block has been intensely devoted to Mystery Giver's development the last three seasons, and sending him away for several months can't be easy. But the strategy has paid off. Mystery Giver won the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup and finished second in the Woodchopper Handicap here last season. Saturday, Mystery Giver makes his first start here this meet, when he defends his title - perhaps as the favorite - in the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup.

Block's business focuses on Illinois racing. In the past, he has wintered in south Florida, but last year Block didn't run a regular winter string, choosing to wait on the Chicago season in March, and he has done the same thing this year. But rather than put Mystery Giver on the shelf, Block decided to send him south with Scherer.

"It's not that strange," Block said. "I gave him to Richie a year ago because I felt extremely confident in him. He got to know the horse as well as I do last year, and he gave me a lot of insight to him."

Block and Scherer obviously are friendly, but though they both spend much of the year in Chicago the two aren't close friends. Block said he admired the operation of Scherer's father, Merrill, and grew to respect the way Richie Scherer ran his string of horses. So though Block and Scherer speak regularly, Block does much more listening than talking.

"It's his show down there," said Block. "I haven't told him one thing to do with the horse. I'm sure some people are saying, 'He sent him to Richie and he's still managing the horse.' That's not the case at all."

And Mystery Giver does take some training. A notoriously fussy eater, Mystery Giver can easily lose his condition if he's not kept right, and even regular training can be tricky with this horse. "He can be tough to train, tough even to gallop," Block said. "But I thought Richie fit the bill for him."

"If this weren't Chris Block, it could be more difficult," Scherer said. "He's been open minded and let me do what I want to do. We have a really good rapport."

Scherer seems to fret over Mystery Giver as much as Block does in Chicago. Even though Mystery Giver has trained well for Saturday's race, Scherer wishes he would eat with more gusto. "I still worry about his eating habits," he said. "He's not the kind of horse that dives into his tub every day."

Even so, Mystery Giver is carrying much more weight now than when he won this race last season. His dirt works have been fast and he's the classiest horse in this field. Mystery Giver should run a good race, but Block will be watching at home in Chicago. It's Scherer's show now.

Learned will await New Orleans

Learned, who rallied from nowhere to finish second by a nose in the Diplomat Way Handicap, will pass the Feb. 9 Whirlaway here and point for the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap on March 2.

"I talked to the owners the other day, and we're in agreement that giving him more time is the best plan," said trainer Bobby Barnett.

Learned, a lightly raced 5-year-old, finished very fast in the Diplomat Way, missing Mineshaft by a nose at the finish. That was Learned's first stakes start, but Barnett has felt since the start of his career in 2001 that Learned was of stakes quality.

"The New Orleans Handicap will be a big step up for him, but it looks like he's going to be able to handle it," Barnett said.

* Sunday's feature here is the Fair Grounds Sales Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race with an estimated purse of $75,000. The Sales Stakes is heavily restricted, open only to horses that passed through the Fair Grounds sale of 2-year-olds in training last year.