12/23/2004 12:00AM

Winning when it counts most

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Lou Hodges Jr.
Shadow Cast, given a smart ride by Robby Albarado, wins the Pago Hop Stakes for trainer Neil Howard, whose barn has yet to heat up.

NEW ORLEANS - Trainer Neil Howard has a barn full of classy runners at Fair Grounds, and the bettors have bet many of his starters down to favoritism only to rip up their tickets.

Howard's inscrutable demeanor gives nothing away, and he is clearly not trying to win the training title, but his horses are gaining valuable conditioning over the Fair Grounds surfaces.

As the competition heats up and the purses grow bigger, expect some of Howard's horses to improve. Never dismiss Howard in the big races, either. Howard has only two winners from 16 starters, but has bankrolled $94,188, largely because both victories came in big races with $60,000 pots.

In fact, of the first three non-restricted stakes held at the meet, Howard won two of them, and didn't have a starter in the third.

Howard sent Fair Grounds-loving Shadow Cast out to win the Pago Hop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile on the turf Dec. 18. Leading jockey Robby Albarado had a ton of horse under him. He kept Shadow Cast out of trouble on the outside, then swept her past the leaders on the turn to win easily.

"Robby ran a smart race for us," Howard said. "She's never run this strong for us, and against a solid field, it was a very impressive performance."

Shadow Cast, who won the Grade 2 Silverbulletday earlier this year on dirt, is eligible to run in several spots and Howard can be counted on to make a shrewd choice for her next outing.

"She's a very versatile and nice racehorse," said Howard. "We have a few options coming up with her on dirt and turf."

Howard's other winner, Midway Road, won the 1 1/16-mile Tenacious Handicap by a nose Dec. 4, showing tremendous determination by coming on again after being passed in deep stretch.

Midway Road has continued to flourish under Howard's care, working three furlongs in 35.60 seconds Dec. 17. Howard plans to bring Midway Road up to the Grade 3, $100,000 Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 12 on workouts alone, with an eye on the Grade 2, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap at 1 1/8 miles March 12.

The Mineshaft Handicap is named for one of Howard's greatest Fair Grounds runners. Howard brought Mineshaft down from Kentucky as an entry-level allowance winner for the 2002-2003 Fair Grounds meet. Mineshaft won the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in 2003 and went to win four Grade 1 stakes (Pimlico Special, Suburban, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup) and be named Horse of the Year.

Crimson Stag heads for Crescent City

Crimson Stag, the easy winner of the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile on Dec. 11 in his first start against Louisiana-breds, will stay in restricted company for the near future.

Ridden by Albarado and trained by Dallas Stewart, Crimson Stag is expected to be pointed to the $75,000 Crescent City Derby for Louisiana-breds on Jan. 8. The next objective is the $125,000 Louisiana Premier Night Prince on Feb. 5 at Delta Downs.