01/10/2011 10:36AM

A Shaky Morning Line

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Most of us have learned the hard way not to speak in absolutes when it comes to race horses because they do have an uncanny knack of later making fools of us. But even knowing that, it's difficult not being disappointed with Morning Line's third-place finish in the Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream last Saturday.

Even money in his first start since getting nailed by Dakota Phone in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Morning Line tired after setting the pace to be beaten by Soaring Empire and Rule. And what was so unsatisfying about Morning Line is that he folded after setting a pace that was completely unremarkable.

Opening quarter miles in one mile main track races at Gulfstream such as the Hal's Hope are tricky reads because there is virtually no run up to the timing pole in these events. But there were 10 one mile main track races at Gulfstream from opening day Wednesday through Sunday's card, and the 24.21 second opening quarter Morning Line set in the Hal's Hope tied for the third slowest first quarter in such races. With a base on balls like that, Morning Line should have had more fight when challenged than he did. That's why he was so disappointing.

Of course, most of us also know that you don't want to put a horse on the "never again" list off of just one race. Still, and without taking anything away from Soaring Empire's clear-cut victory, if there is a horse I would want out of the Hal's Hope, it would be Rule.

I was skeptical of Rule in the Hal's Hope, and not only because he was coming off a 10 month layoff. Even though he was for a time early last year one of the more prominent candidates for the Kentucky Derby, in retrospect, the company he kept at the time looks weak now. But despite the layoff, despite facing proven, solid opposition, and despite being asked to rate a little farther off the lead than he is accustomed, Rule ran big to be beaten only a little more than a length.

And Aggie Engineer ran big - again - winning Saturday's San Pasqual at Santa Anita after this time willingly conceding the early lead. It is fair to question the quality of company Aggie Engineer has been toying with lately. But you can just feel his confidence rising, and when the time comes for him to face an acknowledged leader of his division, Aggie Engineer might no longer know what it means to lose.

It should be noted that Dakota Phone, who tured in a sub-par performance when fourth behind Aggie Engineer in last month's Native Diver, turned in another when fifth in the San Pasqual. Those two uninpiring efforts combined with Morning Line's disappointing outing in the Hal's Hope brings into question the strength of the BC Dirt Mile Dakota Phone and Morning Line decided.