12/04/2003 1:00AM

Years later, Coach Rags still Turf favorite

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NEW ORLEANS - A couple months ago, trainer Gary Palmisano wondered if the age of Coach Rags was drawing to a close. Coach Rags had an answer for him Nov. 28 - no.

With an emphatic 1 1/2-length win in a Louisiana-bred turf allowance, Coach Rags cemented his annual position as the horse to beat in the Louisiana Champions Day Turf, one of seven statebred stakes for Thoroughbreds here Dec. 13.

Coach Rags is a perennial factor in the Turf but has won it just once, way back in 1999, the year he won his maiden at Fair Grounds under Julie Krone. Bad racing luck and the lack of suitable prep races - which a big, heavy horse like Coach Rags needs in order to be at his best - have cost Coach Rags a second Turf victory, but this may be his year. Strange, since coming into this meet he had lost six straight races and was coming off a pair of seventh-place finishes in Louisiana Downs grass races.

"He didn't ever get into the bridle in that last race," said Palmisano, who trains Coach Rags for Vickie Krantz. "He was like a dishrag out there. After that, I was a little concerned he might not be able to compete at that level anymore. He had a split bone that we fixed up, and when we got to Fair Grounds, I started training on him a little more. Even though he trained better, you had to be concerned. Sooner or later, a horse has to lose a step or two."

Indeed, Coach Rags probably isn't quite the horse he once was. But for a horse about to turn 8, he is doing just fine.

"They don't make many like this," Palmisano said.

And even as Coach Rags approaches the end of his career, a new statebred stakes horse is emerging in his stable. That's Destiny Calls, a sharp winner of a statebred allowance sprint here opening weekend, her first start since April.

Palmisano said he's inclined to pass Champions Day with Destiny Calls, but there are other spots for her later this meet. Having watched Palmisano handle Coach Rags for the last five years, you know that he's willing to wait for them.

Romero better and working again

For the first time in two years, Randy Romero is back working as a jockey agent at Fair Grounds. Romero has begun booking mounts here for Jose Martinez Jr., who has moved his tack here from Churchill. For the year, Martinez has won 53 races from 488 mounts.

"I've been trying to get his book for two years," Romero said. "He was thinking of going to Florida, but I told him he'd do real well in New Orleans. I always thought he was a pretty good rider, but he hasn't been given much of a chance. I thought if people would give me a chance, he'd get a chance."

Six months ago, it would have been a struggle for Romero just to get to the racetrack, but he is feeling much stronger now. Romero still needs a kidney and liver transplant, but the hepatitis that afflicted him is less serious now, and Romero said he's working out daily to keep up his strength.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Romero said. "It's a matter of time before I get the transplants. Right now, I'm holding my own. I'm glad to be back at work. It keeps my mind off all the other stuff."

Carroll wants horses to 'settle in'

Trainer David Carroll is coming off an excellent Churchill Dows meet, where he won six races from just 19 starts. But Carroll doesn't expect his hot streak to continue unabated.

"You know how we do things," Carroll said. "We like to give the horses a chance to settle in here."

Carroll also has sold a few horses that won for him at Churchill, and he has several unraced 2- and 3-year-olds who must run in training races here before they can start. And then there is Fire Slam, who may be the most talented horse in his barn but is making his first Louisiana start at Delta Downs. Fire Slam was scheduled to run in the $1 million Delta Jackpot on Friday night. Whether he is a horse who can go on to compete in the Fair Grounds 3-year-old stakes program remains to be seen.

"With his pedigree and everything, you wonder how far he'll want to run," Carroll said. "He's run well at seven-eighths. He's a nice horse, but we'll have to see how he stretches out."