02/13/2003 12:00AM

Young, handsome, and promising: The Indy Dancer story

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NEW ORLEANS - Todd Pletcher had a string of horses at Fair Grounds last season. This year, he's a one-stall operation. Balto Star flew here from Pletcher's base in Florida and easily won the Whirlaway Handicap last Sunday. Balto Star vacated his lodging Wednesday morning and flew back to Florida, replaced a few hours later by Indy Dancer, who is in town for the Risen Star Stakes on Sunday.

Indy Dancer has started his career with two wins, each over a distance of ground. Though he has beaten only allowance horses, Indy Dancer already is considered a Triple Crown hopeful. His race Sunday will tell more. But on looks alone Indy Dancer, a gleaming bay with a classic physique, is a stakes horse.

Thursday morning, Pletcher's assistant Mike McCarthy doctored up Indy Dancer's legs as the colt craned his handsome head over his stall webbing. Indy Dancer's eyes darted up and down the barn, taking in the unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds. Indy Dancer's Florida home is at Palm Meadows, a serene training center quite unlike the bustling Fair Grounds backstretch, but McCarthy said Indy Dancer had shipped perfectly and settled right into the new environment. Indy Dancer jogged twice around the racetrack Thursday morning and will have a regular gallop Friday.

"He's a very intelligent colt, and I think that's one of his greatest assets," McCarthy said. "Anytime you bring a horse to a new place, you wonder how they'll handle it."

In both his starts, Indy Dancer quickly dropped well behind the early pace before cranking up a powerful late run. He will need racing luck Sunday to thread his way through the expected field of 13. John Velazquez is scheduled to ride Indy Dancer.

There were two Risen Star works here Thursday. Canaan Land went a half-mile in 49 seconds, Gentlemen J J a half in 52. The others expected to enter are Badge of Silver, Crowned King, Deep Shadow, Defreres Vixen, Leo's Last Hurrahy, Lone Star Sky, Prince Alphie, Saintly Look, Seattle Hoofer, and Winning Fans.

Balto Star to return

If he trains well in the next two weeks, Balto Star will make a return trip here for the March 2 New Orleans Handicap, Pletcher said Thursday. Balto Star flew here Feb. 5 and won the Whirlaway, a race he exited as well as he came into it.

McCarthy, Pletcher's assistant who saddled Balto Star, said the horse hadn't yet been back to the track to train and "was getting hard to keep on the ground" by the time he flew back to Florida on Wednesday.

"He did seem to come back here in good form," Pletcher said. "At this point the plan is to come back to New Orleans as long as he's doing well."

The Grade 3 Whirlaway was Balto Star's first stakes win since the Arkansas Derby two seasons ago. While Pletcher pointed out that Balto Star had run several top races during that span, like second-place finishes in the Kentucky Cup Classic and the Grade 1 Man o' War, he acknowledged that Sunday's race was "on a par with his best races. I liked how he sat off the pace and handled the track so well."

Lady Tak laying low

Trainer Steve Asmussen has the strong favorite for Saturday's Grade 2 Silverbulletday in his barn. Only she's not running.

Lady Tak has won all four of her starts, including two stakes at this meet and an allowance victory at Churchill over highly touted Perfect Story. She stretched out to two turns for the first time in the Tiffany Lass Stakes three weeks ago and won easily over the same sort of horses she would be facing Saturday. But even before Lady Tak raced at Fair Grounds, Asmussen said Lady Tak would skip a stakes at some point during the meet. And this is the one.

"I absolutely don't feel bad missing it," Asmussen said Thursday. "All I have to do is look back at what I did last year with Lake Lady. I think I ran her too much, too soon."

Lake Lady came to Fair Grounds with a similar record as Lady Tak. She, too, won the Thelma and the Tiffany Lass, and went on to finish fourth in the Silverbulletday, second in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and second in the Fantasy Stakes. But Lake Lady, who now is trained by Bret Calhoun, hasn't raced since.

Ask Asmussen how Lady Tak is doing and the answer never varies: "Awesome." Lady Tak has continued breezing strongly and is radiating good health. "I think she has a great chance of winning the Oaks. She's strong, happy, and sound."

Asmussen is not shut out of the Silverbulletday, either. In fact, he has two horses for the race, Arrival Time and Souris.

"Both of them are pretty darn good, too," he said.

Political Risk has a cough

The promising maiden winner Political Risk was scratched from a two-turn allowance race Thursday because of a cough, trainer Neil Howard said. Howard likes to train his horses the day they race, and Political Risk "must have coughed 15 times between when he came off the track and the barn," Howard said.

Political Risk isn't seriously sick right now, but Howard didn't want to chance compromising his health when the colt was harboring an illness. "We'll get him over this and then look for a race," Howard said.