06/16/2005 11:00PM

Devils Disciple launches comeback

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MIAMI - Nobody could blame trainer Joe Waunsch if he thought to himself "what might have been" while watching Afleet Alex dominate the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Waunsch trains Devils Disciple, who appeared to have Afleet Alex beaten until the final yards of last summer's Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga before Afleet Alex made a desperate final surge to win the Grade 1 race by a neck. Unfortunately, Devils Disciple came out of the Hopeful with a slab fracture in his knee and has not raced since. He will make his much-anticipated return Sunday in the $40,000 Valid Video Stakes at Calder, where the competition includes two-time stakes winner Cin Cin and the red-hot Gower.

"He apparently injured himself sometime during the Hopeful and obviously that didn't help his chances. But I think if he didn't break from the rail that day Devils Disciple would have beaten Afleet Alex anyway," Waunsch said.

bobbled leaving the starting gate in the Hopeful but quickly rushed to the lead, where he was engaged by Flamenco, with whom he dueled through fractions of 22 seconds, 44.60, and 109.80 over a sloppy track. Devils Disciple eventually shook clear of Flamenco near midstretch only to get caught by Afleet Alex in the final strides of the seven-furlong race.

Even trainer Tim Ritchey admitted that he thought Devils Disciple had gotten the best of Afleet Alex at the eighth pole of the Hopeful.

"I didn't think my horse could make that kind of surge in that short a period of time to win," Ritchey said in the winner's circle after the race.

Waunsch said Devils Disciple had several works on the farm before returning to him here last month. He has had three recorded works at Calder, including a five-furlong bullet drill in 1:00 on June 9.

"He's training extremely well but it's always hard to say how any horse will come back from an injury like he had," said Waunsch. "It's also impossible to predict what he might have done if he had stayed healthy and been able to race as a 3-year-old this winter and spring. I'm not saying he would have given Afleet Alex a challenge in the Triple Crown but being by Devil His Due I think he could have been very effective at distances of at least a mile and perhaps as far as a mile and one-eighth."

Devils Disciple will be returning to a course where he won 3 of 4 starts last season, including a pair of stakes. He earned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure, at the time the highest of any 2-year-old in the country, when he captured the Dear Murray Stakes by 9 1/4 lengths. His only local setback came in his second start at the hands of B. B. Best.

will also be making his 3-year-old debut on Sunday. He showed his class last season by upsetting B. B. Best to capture the seven-furlong Affirmed division of the 2004 Florida Stallion Stakes as well as the mile-and-70-yard Foolish Pleasure Stakes. He was given time off to freshen up for his 3-year-old campaign after finishing a distant seventh behind B. B. Best in the In Reality Stakes on Oct. 23.

Gower has improved dramatically in his last two starts. Beaten twice under a $75,000 claiming tag last winter at Gulfstream Park, Gower has since won the OBS Sprint Stakes and the Naked Greed Stakes while earning Beyer Speed Figures of 93 and 99. Both victories came after trainer James Bracken paired Gower with jockey Eddie Castro.

The six-furlong Valid Video serves as a prep for the $300,000 Carry Back Stakes on July 9. The Carry Back is expected to attract the nation's top 3-year-old sprinter, Lost in the Fog.