The Search For Racing's Next Star


Astronomers measure the brightness of stars in terms of apparent magnitude. And for the moment, horse racing has the apparent magnitude of a 40-watt bulb. Take a look: It's like opening your refrigerator.

Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, the two brightest stars to race last year, have been retired, along with another champion, Lookin At Lucky. The two best older males of 2010, Blame and Quality Road, along with Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Travers winner Afleet Express, have been retired, too.

But horse racing is a stellar nursery. And the sport will create several new stars in the next few months. But aside from the 3-year-olds marching prominently toward Kentucky, who will they be? Well, two candidates, Rule and Morning Line, meet today at Gulfstream Park in the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes.

Rule hasn't raced since March, when he finished third as the favorite in the Florida Derby after disputing a rapid pace. Prior to that, though, he had won three consecutive stakes.

In the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Rule wasn't training as well as his connections had hoped -- he had no problems, no injuries, but his workouts implied the languor of an athlete over the top -- and so they sent him to the sidelines to wait and prepare for the future. Rule's future begins today, and if he progresses he could become one of the best older horses in the country.

'He's physically developed very well since then,' said his trainer, Todd Pletcher. 'He has matured and filled out nicely. He'll probably need a race to be at his best... But he's doing very well and should run well.'

Like Rule, Morning Line has raced only seven times. He won last year's Pennsylvania Derby, beating First Dude and A Little Warm. And then Morning Line finished second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill.

Except for Zenyatta's Classic, Morning Line's performance was probably the best losing effort in the Breeders' Cup. He battled through a rapid pace (44.94 for the opening half-mile), put away the other speedsters and then moved clear in mid-stretch only to lose by a head in the final yards to Dakota Phone, who rallied from last. Morning Line was the only horse close to that pace who finished in the top quartet.

He, too, could develop into one of the nation's top older horses. Out west, at Santa Anita, two potential stars already have turned up the wattage: Twirling Candy with his victory in the Malibu Stakes and Sidney's Candy with his win in the Sir Beaufort. And Misremembered could soon join them.

'He could be one of the biggies,' said his trainer, Bob Baffert, about Misremembered, who hasn't raced since winning last year's Santa Anita Handicap. He could be ready to return to competition, Baffert said, in about 45 days.

For the moment, horse racing's handicap division might seem as thin and weak as convenience-store coffee. But the situation is starting to percolate.

A new Alex at Oaklawn

Elite Alex hasn't raced since winning his debut in July at Delaware Park. But he soon could put himself on the road to the Triple Crown.

'I think he has the potential to be a very good horse,' said his trainer, Tim Ritchey. 'He's a very big horse, but he's very agile and athletic.'

Elite Alex could make his 3-year-old debut early in the season at Oaklawn Park, which opens Friday (Jan. 14). He recently worked five furlongs in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1:00.80, which was the bullet, or fastest time of the morning for the distance. Most important, he worked in company with a stablemate named Alex's Vision, an older horse who's a stakes winner.

Ritchey explained the two are workmates, and Elite Alex sometimes outworks his older companion. For a young horse who has raced only once to work on even terms or better than a capable older horse is very impressive.

Elite Alex is a son of Afleet Alex, who was also trained by Ritchey. Afleet Alex, of course, ran second at Lone Star in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He won the 2005 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and, if not for a troubled trip in Kentucky, might have swept the Triple Crown.

by Gary West


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