12/10/2003 1:00AM

Zarb's Luck looks better than ever


NEW ORLEANS - The 6-year-old Zarb's Luck is by the Louisiana stallion Zarbyev, a son of the top-class turf sire Nureyev, and out of a mare by Vice Regent. The pedigree slants heavily toward grass, and that's why Eddie Johnston reached in and took Zarb's Luck out of a $25,000 maiden claimer at Fair Grounds on the last day of 1999.

"When I claimed him, I was looking for a grass horse to go long," said Johnston. "He didn't want any part of it. The first time we tried him [on turf], at Louisiana Downs, he hopped like a bunny all the way around there."

But do not cry for Johnston or his partner, Scott Boudreaux. What they wound up claiming was the best Louisiana-bred sprinter currently in training. Saturday, Zarb's Luck shoots for his second straight win in the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Sprint.

From all appearances, he will be tough to deny, though Donna's Mailbag and Lac Lorange are formidable opponents. Zarb's Luck turns 7 in a couple of weeks, but he has never looked better. His hindquarters are huge, his chestnut coat glows, and Zarb's Luck radiates positive energy, even just standing in his stall.

"A lot of these Zarbyevs, they can be goofy when they're younger, but I think they get smarter and better with age," Johnston said. "He's crooked, but his legs are strong."

Johnston gave this appraisal about 9 o'clock Tuesday morning. Shortly, he would be off to his day job. When he leaves the backstretch in the morning, Johnston goes to work for a company named Manny's, an industrial supplies business where he has been a salesman for 35 years. Johnston, whose white shock of hair is Bob Baffert-esque, comes back to feed in the afternoon, and his workdays generally last 14 hours. That's been the case for 20 years.

But no one around Fair Grounds sees anything but enthusiasm from the man. To friends, Johnston talks up his horses he thinks can run, he bets, and he wins his share of races here each season. It always seems like great fun - especially with a horse like Zarb's Luck in the barn.

Tender shins knock out Cabildo Bag

Cabildo Bag has won 3 of 4 starts, including victories over colts and open company, but she is out of Saturday's $100,000 Champions Day Lassie. Cabildo Bag has been battling tender shins, and the missed training time will cost her the opportunity to run in one of the biggest statebred 2-year-old filly races of the year.

The absence of Cabildo Bag and of Spring Rade, who also apparently has been withdrawn from the race, throws the Lassie wide open. The top contenders may be Cool Cool Cool and Glitter Queen, but the race is expected to attract a full field of starters.

So too is the $100,000 Juvenile, which is coming up a stronger race than the Lassie, with Nitro Chip, Fuzzy Fund, and Ten Times Better the possible favorites.

Coach Rags watching the skies

Since Coach Rags will be entered in a turf race on Saturday, there's rain in the New Orleans forecast.

Trainer Gary Palmisano believes the 7-year-old Coach Rags has been rained out of turf races "at least 15 times." And that is a major problem, since Coach Rags simply cannot compete on dirt. As of Wednesday, the forecast for Champions Day called for a 70 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. But this is nothing new. In the 12-year history of Champions Day, the "Turf" has been rained onto dirt five times.

That would ruin a compelling matchup Saturday between Coach Rags and Mr. Sulu, who have met in the race the last two years.

"I was hoping to get him a start at Fair Grounds, but he wasn't eligible for the race the way they wrote the conditions," said Mr. Sulu's trainer, Josie Carroll. "He had a great work for this, though."

Pierce back after five-year absence

Trainer Malcolm Pierce unexpectedly appeared trackside here Tuesday morning. Pierce came to Fair Grounds regularly in the 1990's, but hasn't stabled here for five years.

This season he is in town with just three horses. More may arrive if stalls open up, and Pierce expects to have a 30-horse string when he marshals his forces at Woodbine in the spring. The Frank Stronach-owned horses he trained over the summer have all been sent to the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida.

Pierce has a 3-year-old colt named Stone Cat that he plans to run in the Dec. 27 Woodchopper Handicap, and he is pointing the 2-year-old filly My Lordship to the Tiffany Lass on Jan. 25.

Irish apprentice works on his skills

An 18-year-old Irish jockey named Shane Gorey is at Fair Grounds until the end of January, honing his skills for the Irish racing season next spring. Gorey, who rode in a schooling race Wednesday, is exercising horses for trainer David Carroll and will continue riding training races, but there are no plans for him to join the local jockey colony.

Gorey, who rode three winners last season, is an apprentice to the Irish trainer Dermot Weld, who suggested he come to the United States to gain experience.

"I hope to get a clock in my head," Gorey said. "It's a completely different style of racing here."

Training races have some notables

The five training races Wednesday morning offered plenty of horses to follow. Bettors may want to watch for Carolina Rose, a 2-year-old filly for trainer Neil Howard; Monkey Hill, who ought to be a short price when he debuts for Tom Amoss; Bleu's Apparition, a filly for Richard Scherer; Joyful Summer, a Hal Wiggins-trained 3-year-old filly; Marlig, a 2-year-old colt for Wiggins; and Loudest, a 2-year-old colt from Steve Asmussen's barn.