Updated on 09/17/2011 9:59PM

All in the footwork for Roman Ruler

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Roman Ruler, with Dana Barnes riding, works out Monday at Del Mar wearing bar shoes on his front hooves.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Bob Baffert has a mantra for Roman Ruler: Feet, don't fail me now.

It has a been a long, hard slog for Baffert with Roman Ruler. The 3-year-old colt's troublesome feet were a source of concern last summer at Del Mar, worsened this winter and spring at Santa Anita, and reached a low point when Roman Ruler finished last in the San Felipe Stakes in his first start of the year.

After that, with Kentucky Derby dreams having evaporated, Baffert set about ignoring the calendar and trying to get Roman Ruler to put his best foot forward. A comeback victory in last month's Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park, and subsequent sharp drills here at Del Mar, have Baffert convinced that Roman Ruler is ready to deliver a top performance on Sunday in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

"We always knew he was a brilliant racehorse," Baffert said at Del Mar. "Now, he's back."

Roman Ruler trains with bar shoes on both front hooves to protect the soles and guard against the bruising that plagued him last year.

"We take them off the day he races, and put them back on the next day," Baffert said.

, from the first crop of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, burst onto the scene last summer, when he won his debut at Hollywood Park, then athletically sidestepped a stricken rival to capture Del Mar's Best Pal Stakes.

He was upset in the Del Mar Futurity, but the result of that race looked better in subsequent months when the horse who beat Roman Ruler, Declan's Moon, went on to be named champion 2-year-old.

After the Del Mar Futurity, Roman Ruler won the Norfolk Stakes, but he did not look as sharp as he had in previous races. And in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Lone Star Park, he finished fifth as the favorite. He was clearly a horse in decline.

"I made a mistake last year," Baffert said. "I took the bar shoes off when we went to Texas, and after two days of galloping, his feet started getting sore. I've learned a lot with this horse. You've got to use your own gut."

Baffert tried to get Roman Ruler back to the races in February, for the San Vicente Stakes, but his foot problems flared anew. When he finally raced again in March, in the San Felipe, Roman Ruler looked dreadful. He was eased at the end of the race by jockey Gary Stevens.

"Gary took care of him," Baffert said. "His feet were killing him."

The Kentucky Derby was out of the question. The question became, what lies beneath? An ugly mess, that's what.

"Usually when you get an abscess, it blows out," Baffert said. "We took the wall off his hoof, and it was like Hannibal Lecter. It was bloody. It was all undermined underneath. We just let the wall grow out, because there was no urgency now."

Roman Ruler looked like his old self in the Dwyer. He rallied strongly to defeat Flower Alley, and the form of that race was flattered when Flower Alley came back to take the Jim Dandy Stakes last weekend at Saratoga. Jerry Bailey, who rode Roman Ruler in the Dwyer, is back aboard for the Haskell.

"The last time, Jerry got him to relax, and that's key, because he's got a tremendous turn of foot," Baffert said. "He's a lot like Afleet Alex that way. They're quick enough to be sent, but it's better if you go along with them, let them relax, and then kick."

Roman Ruler was scheduled to leave California on Thursday for New Jersey. With Afleet Alex now sidelined, and Swaps Stakes winner Surf Cat remaining at Del Mar for the Pacific Classic, Roman Ruler figures to be the favorite in the Haskell. A win there could put Roman Ruler right back in the picture for the major year-end races, and awards. But only, Baffert cautions, "If his feet stay together."