03/05/2007 12:00AM

Zanjero looks to step up in La. Derby

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NEW ORLEANS - Scott Blasi held Zanjero in such high regard last fall that he desperately wanted to run the colt in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, even though all he had done was win a maiden race, in moderate time, in three starts. Zanjero was excluded from the Juvenile when it oversubscribed, so he had to go instead in an allowance race, which he won, before finishing second to Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Remsen Stakes in his 2-year-old finale.

Blasi at the time was training Steve Asmussen's horses, and though he has since reverted to his role as assistant now that Asmussen has returned from a suspension, Blasi's opinion of Zanjero has not changed. In his only start this year, Zanjero finished third in last month's Risen Star Stakes after swooping around the field and briefly taking the lead. Blasi, who oversees the Asmussen horses based at Fair Grounds, says he believes Zanjero can - in a nod to chef Emeril Lagasse - kick it up a notch.

"He's definitely matured from his 2-year-old year," Blasi said Monday at Fair Grounds, after Zanjero drew post 6 in a field of eight for the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby on Saturday. "From November to March he's done well. I think he'll definitely get better with racing."

Zanjero tuned up for the race with a half-mile breeze in 50.20 seconds on Monday morning at Fair Grounds.

The Louisiana Derby heads a super card on Saturday at Fair Grounds. Four Grade 2 stakes will be run, as well as another stakes race, making for the richest day of racing in Louisiana history, with $2.1 million in stakes money alone. The derby will be the last of the four graded stakes, which begins with the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap for older horses and continues with the Mervin Muniz Handicap for grass runners and the Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. The four graded stakes will be linked in a pick four that will have a guaranteed pool of $200,000.

The 1 1/16-mile Louisiana Derby, scheduled as the ninth race on a card that begins at 12:35 p.m. Central, has several horses returning from the Risen Star, most notably Circular Quay, who was badly impeded at the top of the stretch when Slew's Tizzy clipped heels and lost his rider. Circular Quay was the 6-5 favorite in the Risen Star, in which he rallied to finish fifth, and he is the 9-5 favorite in the Louisiana Derby on the early line set by Billy Pettingill of Fair Grounds.

Imawildacrazyguy, the Risen Star runner-up, also is back. In to take on the Risen Star graduates are Birdbirdistheword, who has not raced since capturing the Delta Jackpot in December, and Liquidity, who was second to Ravel in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

The New Orleans Handicap, at 1o1/8 miles, drew seven runners and is headed by Master Command, who was a six-length winner of the Mineshaft Handicap here on Feb. 10 for trainer Todd Pletcher. In to challenge him is Liquor Cabinet, who was a nine-length winner of the Aqueduct Handicap on Jan. 20.

Patriot Act, the Mineshaft runner-up, breezed five furlongs in 1:01.20 on Monday. He drew the rail for the New Orleans Handicap.

The Muniz, at about 1 1/8 miles on turf, drew 11 runners, with highweights King's Drama (post 9) and Einstein (post 11) landing outside boxes. King's Drama won the San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita on Dec. 31. Others in the race include Sweet Return and the mare Naissance Royale.

The 1 1/16-mile Fair Grounds Oaks has a field of eight and features the first three finishers - Appealing Zophie, Total, and Get Ready Bertie - from last month's Silverbulletday Stakes here, as well as Octave, who will be making her first start since finishing second to champion Dreaming of Anna in the BC Juvenile Fillies.

Appealing Zophie breezed a half-mile in 50.40 seconds on Monday at Fair Grounds.