09/21/2001 11:00PM

Express Tour fires off 105-day rest


ELMONT, N.Y. - The patience Godolphin Racing has showed with Express Tour was rewarded on Saturday when the 3-year-old colt returned from a 105-day layoff to record a 5 1/2-length victory in the Grade 2, $150,000 Jerome Handicap at Belmont Park.

Illusioned finished second, a nose in front of 6-5 favorite Burning Roma. Scorpion and Hero's Tribute completed the order of finish in the Jerome, which was rescheduled from Sept. 15, when racing was canceled due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Express Tour hadn't raced since finishing last in the Grade 2 Riva Ridge Stakes on June 9. But, a series of solid workouts since mid-summer had him razor sharp to endure a heated duel with Hero's Tribute.

Hero's Tribute, under Jorge Chavez, broke on top but was soon joined on the outside by Express Tour and John Velazquez. The two dueled through fractions of 22.38 seconds and 44.60 before Hero's Tribute began to give way around the turn. Express Tour kept on going and was never threatened in the stretch.

He completed the mile in 1:34.57 and returned $18 as the longest shot in the field.

Express Tour, a Florida-bred son of Tour D'or purchased by Godolphin last fall, joined Point Given as the only horses to come out of the Kentucky Derby to win a dirt race. Express Tour finished eighth in the Derby. Before that, he defeated Lido Palace in the UAE Derby in Dubai.

"He looked fantastic in Kentucky in May, and when he ran in the Riva Ridge I think he just bounced from the race and he kind of went downhill on us and we just gave him the time," said Tom Albertrani, assistant trainer for Godolphin. "Going into this race, he looked every bit as good as he did going into the Kentucky Derby, and he looked fantastic then."

Velazquez said Express Tour was much improved from the Riva Ridge.

"He was on the inside and he wasn't too happy being inside," Velazquez said of the Riva Ridge. "Today, he broke good. I put my hands down and when [Hero's Tribute] outran him he just went right after him so I left him alone. Believe me, he was real impressive today."

Tugger captures Noble Damsel

Moments before suffering a tough loss in the Kentucky Cup Classic with Balto Star at Turfway Park, trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Antsu Stables watched their 4-year-old filly Tugger post a front-running one-length victory in the $113,800 Noble Damsel Stakes. Shine Again finished second, a head in front of Tippity Witch.

The Noble Damsel was taken off the turf, prompting eight of the 14 horses to scratch. The Noble Damsel became the fifth graded stakes in New York this year to be taken off the turf, and a Pletcher-trained horse has won three of them.

Don Orlando, the track superintendent, said that both turf courses absorbed 2 3/4 inches of rain Thursday night and Friday morning.

"It needs a little more time to drain," Orlando said. "We're getting some drying, but we need more. To be honest with you, we got the Breeders' Cup coming, and we're trying to protect it for that. It was a tough decision. We were torn very much. It's not just soft, it's soft soft."

*Brave One forged to the front soon after the start, put away pace challenges from 3-5 favorite John Paul Too and No Bad Habits, and drew clear for a two-length victory in the $85,275 Ashley T. Cole Handicap for New York-breds.

No Bad Habits held second, a nose in front of late-running Whitmore's Conn. It was another 1 1/4 lengths to John Paul Too. The Cole, originally scheduled for the turf, was moved to the main track. Six of the 14 horses entered scratched. Brave One, a 4-year-old gelded son of Seattle Slew trained by Gary Contessa and ridden by Norberto Arroyo Jr., covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.89 over a fast main track. He returned $21.80.

*Officer, the leading 2-year-old colt in the country, will make his next start in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont on Oct. 6, trainer Bob Baffert said. Earlier this week, Baffert had said the unbeaten 2-year-old would start in the Grade 2 Norfolk at Santa Anita.

Baffert said Prince Ahmed Salman, head of The Thoroughbred Corporation, "really wanted to get a Grade 1 with him. He thought it'd be a good gesture to take the horse to New York."

- additional reporting by Jay Privman