03/20/2003 12:00AM

Witt Ante looks a lock to meet new challenge


NEW ORLEANS - First, the question was whether Witt Ante could go two turns. The answer was an emphatic yes. Now the issue is whether Witt Ante can race as effectively on turf as he has on dirt. The answer will be forthcoming Saturday at Fair Grounds when he faces eight horses in the $100,000 Gentilly Handicap.

Since Witt Ante has yet to fail, do not expect him to falter now.

Witt Ante has won stakes at three different tracks and at distances of six furlongs, seven furlongs, and 1 1/16 miles. His pedigree is not especially slanted toward grass racing, but his ability should be too much for his opponents.

Witt Ante had a difficult trip when he was second in the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile in early December, but nobody has gotten close to him since then. Witt Ante won the Louisiana Futurity by 3 1/2 lengths and has easily won his first two starts in route races. He took the Crescent City Derby here by almost three lengths and the Clyde Stevens at Delta last month by seven.

Owned by David Beard, trained by Larry Robideaux, and ridden by Kirk LeBlanc, Witt Ante should stalk a solid pace in the one-mile Gentilly and swoop to the lead after turning for home.

The prospect of such a performance is likely to push one of Witt Ante's most talented rivals into another race. Spritely Walker, 2 for 2 since he was purchased privately and turned over to trainer Steve Asmussen, has been cross-entered in a dirt stakes at Delta Downs and is more likely to start there. "I don't think he's ready to go two turns against a horse like Witt Ante right now," Asmussen said.

That leaves Lac Lorange and Lighter Knot as the upset threats, but Witt Ante has handily defeated both of them, and only the switch to turf leaves open the chance that one will turn the tables Saturday.

O'Callaghan sends possible live one

Trainer Niall O'Callaghan can speak from experience about longshots and the Explosive Bid Handicap. Tijiyr was almost 10-1 when he won the race two seasons ago for O'Callaghan and owner Gary Tanaka, and the price could have been higher. When he won, Tijiyr was coming out of a second-level allowance win (he was still eligible for a first-level allowance) and making only his second start in this country. And after the Explosive Bid, Tijiyr never won again.

O'Callaghan has since pulled out of Fair Grounds, spending his winters exclusively in Florida. But he is back this weekend with Della Francesca, another European import who will be even a longer price in the Explosive Bid than was Tijiyr.

Purchased privately last year, Della Francesca finished 10th last fall in his U.S. debut, but rebounded with a promising win Jan. 12 in a high-end Gulfstream allowance. But his stakes debut in this country was a disappointment: Della Francesca had no punch in the stretch and finished sixth Feb. 16 in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap.

O'Callaghan believes Della Francesca raced too far behind a moderate pace that day, and is willing to forgive the performance and give his horse another chance. O'Callaghan plays this game extremely well. He assesses talent, then puts his horses in the right spot, even if it means traveling. O'Callaghan rarely ships a horse into a race where he is overmatched, which is why Della Francesca merits attention Sunday.

"That's why sometimes longshots win," O'Callaghan said. "If you feel like they're good enough, you give them a chance."

Della Francesca put in a solid workout Sunday at O'Callaghan's base at Payson Park. "He works very well on dirt," he said. "He handles it so well I'll eventually try him in a dirt race."

The Explosive Bid field was set at 12 as of Thursday. Four horses from California - Redattore, Century City, Requete, and Seinne - arrived here Wednesday. Rouvres and Orchard Park are expected to join Della Francesca on a flight from Florida on Friday. Mystery Giver, Candid Glen, Even the Score, Freefourinternet, and Run to Victory are the locals.

Small setback for Cat Genius

Cat Genius had a scheduled workout postponed this week because of a sore foot, but trainer Tom Amoss said the setback is minor and Cat Genius would return to training in a couple days.

Cat Genius, a 3-year-old, has won 4 of his 5 starts by a combined 31 1/2 lengths. His only setback came last November in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where he stumbled badly leaving the gate. He cut himself so severely that much of the winter was required for the injury to heal. With only three published workouts this season, Cat Genius returned to action March 9 at Delta Downs, where he easily won the $75,000 Sportsman's Paradise Stakes.

Amoss said Cat Genius's current foot ailment isn't related to the injury he suffered last fall. "He grabbed himself once about a month ago, and we think it might've gotten infected," Amoss said. "It's a minor thing."

Amoss and owner John Parker hope to test Cat Genius in a Kentucky Derby prep race next month, but plans for the colt's next start remain uncertain.

Asmussen high on Posse

Posse, a distant second to Midas Eyes last weekend in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream, has returned to trainer Steve Asmussen's barn in New Orleans and could make his next start in the Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland or the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs.

Held in high regard by his connections, Posse struggled last year in the second half of his 2-year-old campaign, but he won his 3-year-old debut in a Fair Grounds allowance race impressively and ran well in the Swale despite the margin of victory.

"He beat Whywhywhy by four lengths, and I was proud of him for that," Asmussen said. "I don't know what to think about losing by 10 lengths, but Midas Eyes set a stakes record. I do think the race showed we're back on track with him."

Most Feared looking strong

Most Feared moved one step closer to a stakes race next month with a solid six-furlong workout in company here Thursday. With Robby Albarado up, Most Feared trailed his workmate into the stretch, but quickly passed him when Albarado asked Most Feared for a little run at about the sixteenth pole. Most Feared's breeze was timed in 1:15.40, and he galloped out strongly onto the backstretch.

"He worked well. We'll see how he comes out of it and then sit down and make some decisions about where to run," trainer Ronny Werner said.

Werner plans to work his leading 3-year-old, Badge of Silver, on Friday.