11/19/2002 12:00AM

Booklet sharp in return

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John T. Ward Jr. did not necessarily expect Booklet to win the feature race Tuesday at Churchill Downs. After all, "you can only train a horse so much" following a six-month layoff, said Ward.

So after Booklet led most of the way to win the $52,025 feature, Ward and his wife, Donna, were all smiles. Booklet, ridden by Pat Day, dug in to turn back Dash for Daylight, then Rock Slide, to prevail in his first start since finishing 12th in the May 18 Preakness. He paid $4.20 as favorite.

"I liked the way he pinned his ears," said Donna Ward.

Booklet, a 3-year-old Notebook colt owned by John Oxley, was regarded as one of the leading 3-year-olds in North America early this year after winning the Grade 3 Holy Bull and Grade 1 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. But after defeats in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass, then a dull performance in the Preakness, Ward gave the colt a vacation.

"He was just old-fashioned, racetrack body sore," said Ward. "There weren't any fractures or anything. It was just a matter of him having soreness in every part of his body because he had done so much and hadn't yet fully matured."

Even after working the colt back into racing shape with a series of bullet workouts at Keeneland, Ward said he only wanted to see Booklet run well Tuesday.

Booklet did more than that by turning in a terrific performance, finishing a mile in 1:34.68 over a fast track, even with Day hand-riding him home. The track record is 1:33.57.

"Sometimes you underestimate the heart and grit a horse has," said Ward.

Rock Slide finished second by three-quarters of a length, followed by Dash for Daylight, Twilight Road, Virtual G, and Medievil Hero.

Booklet will go to Florida in a few weeks to embark on a 4-year-old campaign, said Ward.

Learned still has what it takes

It had been nearly a year since Learned last won a race, so trainer Bobby Barnett was justifiably elated after the huge gelding, making his third start following a layoff, posted an impressive 3 1/4-length triumph in the fifth race Tuesday, a $47,930 allowance for older horses.

Learned opened his career with three straight victories last fall, enticing several big-name racing stables to make lucrative offers to buy him. But owners John Kottkamp and Jim Haggard, the principals in Midway Farm, declined those offers, hoping Learned would turn into a star.

But after Learned won a Nov. 23 allowance at Churchill, hopes soon were dashed in New Orleans when the gelding suffered a condylar fracture while training toward the Woodchopper Stakes. Veterinarian Larry Bramlage subsequently performed surgery, after which "he told us everything went perfect," said Barnett.

The evidence of a full recovery was on full display Tuesday when Learned, racing last in a field of seven, rolled from off the pace to overtake favored Cat Tracker to win the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:43.86. He returned $8.40 as second choice under Calvin Borel.

"There are three or four races we can pick from in New Orleans," said Barnett, adding that Learned, a 4-year-old by Discover who stands more than 17 hands tall, "is the biggest horse I've ever saddled. I'm just glad to have the big guy back."

Bien Nicole top name in Cardinal

A sizable field, headed by Bien Nicole, is shaping up for Saturday's $150,000 Cardinal Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile turf race that serves as the lone stakes to be run here this weekend.

Bien Nicole, trained by Don Von Hemel, will enter the Grade 3 Cardinal with a five-race win streak. Her last victory came in the Estrapade Stakes on Breeders' Cup eve at Arlington Park. Don Pettinger will ride again.

The Churchill stakes schedule hits its peak next weekend with four graded stakes on the final three days of the meet: the $250,000 Falls City on Nov. 28; the $400,000 Clark Handicap on Nov. 29; and the Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod on Nov. 30.

Morluc won't return to Hong Kong

Trainer Randy Morse said he has decided against sending Morluc overseas to the Dec. 17 Hong Kong Turf Sprint for the third straight year. Morse said Morluc, an earner of more than $1 million for owner Mike Cloonan, "is just not right. I'm not going over there with a half-fit horse."

Morluc was a narrowly beaten second to the Australian star Falvelon in his two previous tries in the Hong Kong race.

* Nick Zito bobblehead dolls will be given away here Saturday. Zito, a New York native who has trained two Kentucky Derby winners, long has called Kentucky his adopted home state. The only other person that Churchill previously has honored with a bobblehead is Pat Day.

* Sky Terrace, the 3-year-old who won the Derby Trial in April, was turned out on a South Carolina farm after undergoing minor throat surgery shortly after running poorly last month at Keeneland, said trainer Vickie Foley.