08/22/2009 12:00AM

Coal Play back where he runs best

Ryan Denver/Equiphotos
Coal Play has won 3 of 5 starts at Monmouth, including the July 4 Salvator Mile.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Coal Play will long be remembered at Monmouth Park for his heroic effort in last year's Haskell Invitational.

Setting a determined pace, Coal Play almost pulled off a stunner at 20-1. Only a relentless rally by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown denied him the Grade 1 victory.

Coal Play will look to build on his Monmouth reputation Saturday in the Grade 3, $300,000 Philip H. Iselin Stakes.

A 4-year-old trained by Nick Zito, Coal Play returns to his favorite track to face six rivals in the 1 1/8-mile race with Joe Bravo set to ride.

Coal Play loves to be on the lead, a strategy that has helped him compile a record of 3-1-1 in 5 starts on this speed-favoring strip.

"There are horses for courses. I think that's what it is," Zito said.

Coal Play has not run since capturing the here on July 4, a Breeders' Cup Win and You're In victory that secured a spot in the Dirt Mile.

He earned a career-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure in the Salvator, a dominant three-length victory.

"I had a lot of horse left," Bravo said. "He ran a big race. It was a pretty eye-opening race and I've ridden him several times."

Any thoughts that Coal Play might have lost his edge in the interim were dispelled last week at Saratoga when he drilled four furlongs in 46.53 seconds.

"The horse had a great work, unbelievable," Zito said.

Bravo sees the Iselin as an important step for a horse getting even tougher with experience.

"Nick Zito developed Commentator to be one of the best horses in the country," Bravo said. "He seems to be taking the same plan with Coal Play. He is in the early stages of being a great horse."

To reach that level, Coal Play must prove he can win beyond 1 1/16 miles. He is winless in two tries at 1 1/8 miles, including the Haskell.

"You saw how good he ran against Big Brown,'' Zito said when asked about the distance question. "Joe Bravo knows him and he's a terrific horse.''

Bravo said he believes Coal Play will overcome the distance hurdle.

"It's not going to help him, but he's big, and a strong-enough animal that he will do the distance," Bravo said.

Coal Play bids to become only the fourth horse to win the Salvator and the Iselin, Monmouth's top stakes for older dirt runners, in one season.

Canadian-based runners Schossberg (1995) and Smart Strike (1996) did it in consecutive years. Gottcha Gold pulled off the feat in 2007.

Chirac, one of the local hopefuls, will be looking to rebound from a fourth-place finish in the slop in the on the Haskell Day undercard that ended a three-race winning streak.

"The last race, you've got to throw it out," said trainer Jane Cibelli. "It's time to try to graded company. With a little luck, maybe someone will soften up Coal Play."

Researcher, Solar Flare, You and I Forever, Pampered Sir, and Actin Good complete the field.

* Avie's Tale, with Bravo aboard for her first start for trainer Christophe Clement, is one of the top contenders in the $70,000 Omnibus Stakes for fillies and mares going 1 3/8 miles on the turf.

- additional reporting by David Grening