01/17/2002 12:00AM

Zuppy has little to beat in Crescent City

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NEW ORLEANS - Trainer Steve Asmussen won three of the last five open stakes races held at Fair Grounds and finished second in another. Saturday, he can make a dent in the restricted stakes division when he saddles Zuppy as the favorite in the $75,000 Crescent City Derby.

The Crescent City, run at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, is restricted to Louisiana-breds. The race drew a competitive field of nine, none of whom have proven their quality in two-turn races.

That's the case with Zuppy, who has won two starts since shipping in from Calder after his career debut in November. Zuppy slew a giant in his last start, beating the overwhelming favorite Hail to Bag on Dec. 23 in the Louisiana Futurity. That effort was a great leap forward from his first start for Asmussen, a workmanlike maiden win Dec. 7, and gave the impression there might be more development to come from the lightly raced Zuppy.

Zuppy, who's owned by Fred Pace, is by Zuppardo's Prince and out of a mare by Northern Baby, which suggests two turns is within his reach. He put in a stamina-based six-furlong bullet work here Jan. 9 and will be ridden back by Donnie Meche, Asmussen's go-to jockey.

Four of Zuppy's Rivals come out of claiming races; another was beaten a combined 21 lengths in his last two starts; and another has only won five-furlong races. That leaves Screen Idol, who was almost 10-1 when he debuted with a closing win in a Louisiana-bred maiden sprint. Screen Idol has a stretchout pedigree and should be closer to the pace as he tries two turns for the first time.

'Gitgo' breezes for Lecomte

Nearing his stakes debut, which will come Jan. 26 in the Lecomte Stakes, Easyfromthegitgo put in a stamina-based work here Wednesday morning, breezing seven furlongs in 1:28.80. Easyfromthe-gitgo, who breezed alone, was one of only two horses to work the distance Wednesday, when the Fair Grounds track, listed as fast, produced its typically moderate workout times.

Easyfromthegitgo's drill could easily have been obscured by a swarm of workout activity from the deep Asmussen barn. Asmussen said he worked close to 40 horses here this week.

But few breezes were more important than Easyfromthegitgo's, since he will be Asmussen's best hope to win the Lecomte, the first 3-year-old route stakes here, and move into the Louisiana Derby picture.

Easyfromthegitgo, who will be joined in the Lecomte by the Asmussen-trained Forty Nine Deeds, finished second in his first three starts before breaking through with a 3 3/4-length maiden win at Churchill Downs.

Asmussen stretched Easyfromthegitgo out to two turns here Dec. 14, and the colt won an allowance race by more than five lengths.

By Dehere out of an Easy Goer mare, Easyfromthegitgo showed the one-mile of the Lecomte will not itself present an obstacle.

"We're just trying to keep the middle in him right now," said Asmussen. "He's always had a lot of speed, so we've lengthened his works out the last couple weeks. He worked three-quarters in company the time before this one, and he was pretty relaxed. He'll have a little half-mile in company Tuesday, and that will be that."

Martin's lead shrinking

Jockey Eddie Martin has settled for a second-place finish in the jockey standings the last three years at Fair Grounds, and though Martin is on top of this meet, he must be looking over his shoulder. Robby Albarado, the leading rider here for three years in a row before last season, steadily is eating into Martin's lead, and through last week had pulled within 12 wins of Martin, 52-40. Two weeks ago, Martin had nearly doubled Albarado's win total, 41-22. Martin's lead figured to suffer further erosion Thursday, when he took off all his mounts because of an illness.

Still, there is no taking away what Martin has accomplished so far this meet. After getting off second early in the meet behind Gerard Melancon, Martin surged to the lead and quickly became the hot rider on the grounds. His mastery of the local turf course, which can be tricky to ride, earned him most of the choice grass mounts, while Martin and agent Bobby Kelly made inroads into most of the top stables here. The number of live mounts Martin gets in his native New Orleans dwarfs his business the rest of the year on the Kentucky and Chicago circuits.

Tom Amoss, second in the trainer standings and winning at a 44 percent clip through last week, has tapped Martin to ride many of his horses here. "He's got a knack for coming down here and riding like he's on a mission," Amoss said. "You watch him ride now, especially when there's a stretch duel, and you feel like you're going to win every time."

Sarah Lane's Oates earns reprieve

The venerable Louisiana-bred turf mare Sarah Lane's Oates put her impending retirement on hold with a solid fifth-place finish here Sunday in the Sixty Sails Handicap. Facing open company, Sarah Lane's Oates rallied well to finish fifth, beaten about two lengths for the win, in her best race since last summer.

It was a somewhat surprising turnaround for the 8-year-old Sarah Lane's Oates, who had finished third or better only once in her last seven starts, though her trainer, Andy Leggio, said the mare had never shown signs of decline in her day-to-day training. Had Sarah Lane's Oates turned in a poor performance, she might immediately have headed off to her life as a broodmare. Instead, Leggio said, Sarah Lane's Oates is likely to run in an allowance race here before making her final start in the March 25 Red Camelia Handicap, a race she won three years in a row before finishing second last season.

Leggio and owner Glen Warren had hoped to make Sarah Lane's Oates a million-dollar earner before her retirement, but that goal seems slightly out of reach now. With her paycheck from the Sixty Sails, Sarah Lane's Oates career earnings stand at $888,296, and even wins in her next two starts would probably not get her over the $1 million mark. Leggio said no breeding plans have been finalized for Sarah Lane's Oates.

Even as Sarah Lane's Oates's racing days wind down, Candid Glen, another turf horse, might be entering the prime of his career for Leggio and Warren. Candid Glen pulled a stunning upset in last year's Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap and is set to defend his title in that race Feb. 2. Candid Glen has run twice this meet, but both races were rained off turf and onto dirt. Leggio had no sense of Candid Glen's ability on the main track, but the horse turned in a pair of second-place finishes, most recently in the Colonel Bradley Handicap.

No solid favorite in Diplomat Way

The prospective field for Sunday's $75,000 Diplomat Way Handicap has swelled to eight, and the absence of the four highest-weighted horses nominated to the Diplomat Way makes it a wide-open race.

The starting highweight is likely to be Castlewood, who gets in at 114 pounds, one pound more than three other likely starters, E Z Glory, Parade Leader, and Tahkodha Hills. E Z Glory was favored in the Tenacious Handicap in December, the first of a series of route races for older horses here, but turned in a dull performance. Trainer Carl Bowman said E Z Glory was not thriving physically when he ran in the Tenacious, his stakes debut, and his presence in the Diplomat Way suggests that E Z Glory has turned a corner in the last six weeks.

Also expected to start are Crafty Shaw, Frazee's Folly, Freon Flier, and Drewman.