02/17/2004 12:00AM

Zoning finds he likes dirt

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NEW ORLEANS - Steve Asmussen has seen this before. Several years ago, Asmussen began training a turf mare named Histoire Sainte at Fair Grounds. Uncomfortable on many dirt surfaces, Histoire Sainte quickly took to the cushiony Fair Grounds track, and her morning training made her a much better horse in afternoon grass races.

And now there is , who has taken the Histoire Sainte model and advanced it a notch. Not only does this grass horse train well on the Fair Grounds dirt, he races extremely well on it. Zoning comes into Thursday's featured ninth race off two cruising dirt wins, victories that have earned him a step up to the $80,000 claiming level.

The feature, at one mile, also is open to high-end allowance horses who haven't won at a mile or farther in the last two calendar years. Five besides Zoning were entered, and the group is a competitive one. Witt Ante looks like an outsider on form, but a decent case can be made for Prince Slew, Astrologist, Classic Par, and Dash for Daylight.

Zoning has more going for him than a fondness for the Fair Grounds surface. A 7-year-old English-bred by Warning, Zoning has plenty of class and almost $300,000 in career earnings. He likes to win, with eight victories in 29 starts, and rarely runs poorly, with 19 finishes of third or better.

But Zoning has taken things to a new level in the last month. Claimed for $40,000 in October, Zoning ran on turf and lost for similar claiming tags in his first two starts for Asmussen and Robert Beck's Coast to Coast Racing Fund. When a Jan. 25 turf race was rained onto dirt, Zoning stayed in and won by more than 14 lengths. Back only a week later in another off-the-turf race, this time for $50,000, he won by five lengths while never being asked for run by jockey Shane Sellers.

"As good as he's run on the dirt at Fair Grounds, he deserves the chance to show he can be more than an off-the-turf horse here," Asmussen said.

Classic Par might be Zoning's chief rival. His trainer, Merrill Scherer, has been as hot as Asmussen this Fair Grounds meet, and Classic Par faced better horses than these when he finished a close sixth Feb. 1 in the Grade 3 Whirlaway Handicap. Zoning, however, has led all the way in his recent wins and will get the jump on Classic Par, who needs help from either Astrologist or Dash for Daylight, the two horses with enough pace to keep Zoning honest on the lead.