03/08/2007 12:00AM

Whoa! Pletcher horse at a price in Muniz


An upset already has occurred in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap: Todd Pletcher doesn't have one of the favorites.

While three other Pletcher-trained horses - Circular Quay in the Louisiana Derby, Octave in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and Master Command in the New Orleans Handicap - look like top-two betting chances in their Grade 2 stakes, Heat of the Night might be the sixth or seventh choice in the Muniz, the 1 1/8-mile highlight of the Fair Grounds turf season. A South African import who won his U.S. debut at 19-1 on Jan. 14 at Gulfstream Park, Heat of the Night may be eclipsed in the public eye by such turf stalwarts as King's Drama - the likely favorite - Einstein, Sweet Return, Hendrix, and the 5-year-old mare Naissance Royale.

Not that the Muniz is in any way cut and dried. King's Drama, part of a four-horse California contingent, has raced at longer distances for most of the North American phase of his career, though he did adapt to the Muniz distance in his most recent race, winning the San Gabriel over the Santa Anita turf course on Dec. 31. His trainer, Bobby Frankel, said King's Drama might have raced before Saturday but for a flesh wound suffered when a San Gabriel rival "scraped [King's Drama's] whole leg up when he came over."

King's Drama, a 7-year-old millionaire owned by Gary Tanaka, is a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/2 miles, but Frankel pointed out that when the horse first came to the U.S. from Europe, "he was more of a miler."

"It should be okay," Frankel said. "You got Sweet Return on the lead, and I shouldn't be that far out of it."

Sweet Return, another 7-year-old California millionaire, lost all seven of his starts in 2006, but took advantage of a soft pace to win a minor one-mile Santa Anita stakes by a nose Feb. 3.

Hendrix, another fixture in California graded turf stakes, won only 2 of 12 starts in 2006, though he often finishes near the front. Macduff, the fourth Californian, came back from an 11-month layoff to win a third-level allowance race Feb. 10 at Santa Anita, but hasn't tried a stakes race since July 2005 in Ireland. He'd be more easily overlooked if Neil Drysdale didn't train him.

Heat of the Night is a wild card, while Naissance Royale probably meets males of higher quality than the females she's recently faced.

The best Florida-based horse in the Muniz appears to be Einstein, but Einstein, a Grade 1 winner himself, comes into the Muniz with a couple question marks attached. First, he raced just two weeks ago, finishing a close third in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap. He broke from post 10 in that race, and landed post 11 for Saturday's start, a potentially difficult spot, even with a long run down the stretch before the first turn.

There are three Fair Grounds-based horses in the race, but Cloudy's Knight holds highest the local banner. A massive 7-year-old gelding who has spent most of his career on the Chicago circuit, Cloudy's Knight landed his best win last month, getting up in the final strides in the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup.