03/03/2011 3:16PM

Gulfstream optional claimer draws deep field including Tahitian Warrior

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The $100,000 Honey Fox is the feature on Saturday’s card, but it may be the eighth race that will garner the most attention. The $61,500 optional claiming dash lured a field of nine, including Aikenite in his first start since the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Sunshine Millions Sprint runner-up Apriority, and the speedy Tahitian Warrior, who began his career with a sensational maiden victory on opening day of the 2010 Gulfstream meeting.

Rick Mettee, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Surror, is in charge of the Godolphin Stable contingent spending the winter at Palm Meadows and was just happy to get a race to go to kick off Tahitian Warrior’s 2011 campaign.

“I was talking with Todd this morning, and originally we were both worried whether or not the race would even fill,” Mettee said Thursday, referring to Aikenite’s trainer, Todd Pletcher. “And then not only did it fill, it came up with a nine-horse field and a loaded one at that.”

Tahitian Warrior has not started since finishing a tiring fourth after getting to the lead near the eighth pole of the seven-furlong Bold Ruler when making his graded stakes debut Oct. 30 at Belmont Park.

“The Bold Ruler came up a little stronger spot than we might have expected, especially for a 3-year-old at that time,” Mettee said. “Those older horses were probably just a little tougher and faster than him at that point, but he’s grown up a bit since then.”

Tahitian Warrior was an instant sensation, winning his maiden at first asking by nearly five lengths while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 95 in his debut. The performance impressed Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum enough that he purchased the gelded son of Maria’s Mon privately from his original owner, Frank Calabrese, shortly after the race.

Tahitian Warrior was a disappointment when sent to Dubai for the Meydan Classic but impressed once returned to the United States for the second half of his 3-year-old campaign, earning triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in each of his last four starts, including a pair of easy allowance wins in New York.

“We just freshened him up off his last race, and he’s trained well since arriving here at Palm Meadows,” Mettee said. “He’s probably fit enough to win this race. The only issue he might have is that occasionally he’s a half-step slow leaving the gate, and it’s going to take a real good performance to win off a layoff against a field of this caliber, especially if he doesn’t break real sharp. But it’s a good comeback spot for him, and if he’s good enough could set him up for a race next month like the Carter.”

Trainer David Fawkes hopes Apriority will have a little edge over both Tahitian Warrior and Aikenite, with two starts under his belt already this season.

“It’s a tough race, but they both might need one,” Fawkes said. “At least it’s nice the pots just went up, so we’re running for more money.”

Apriority won three in a row for Fawkes, before missing by a head to Amzombie when returning to the West Coast for the Sunshine Millions Sprint on Jan. 29, a race most observers, including Fawkes, felt he should have won.

“He lost his footing down the backside, and they kind of got away from him,” Fawkes said. “But he’s come back from the trip well, and hopefully this race will set him up for something like the Count Fleet or the Carter.”

Aikenite was freshened by Pletcher since finishing eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Aikenite demolished second-level allowance types by 5 1/2 lengths over Keeneland’s Polytrack in his previous start. He was winless in two tries locally last winter, but both of those races came in graded stakes, a sixth after a troubled beginning in the Grade 3 Holy Bull and a third behind stablemate Eskendereya in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.

Mettee also has Grade 2 winner Regal Ransom in his care at Palm Meadows and expects to have him ready to run before the end of the meet. Regal Ransom has not started since finishing ninth after setting the pace in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap. Regal Ransom, winner of the Grade 2 Super Derby at 3, started just four times in 2010, his best effort an easy high-priced optional claiming win last summer at Saratoga.

“The Suburban and that race at Saratoga might have taken a lot out of him to start the year,” Mettee said. “We might look for a sprint here just to get a run into him so he doesn’t have a hard race the first time back.”

Lebron rides 1,000th winner

Jockey Victor Lebron posted career win 1,000 when guiding Peach Bottom to victory for trainer Wayne Catalano in Wednesday’s sixth race.

Lebron, 26, began galloping horses in his native Virgin Islands at the age of 14 and rode his first winner at Thistledown in 2005. He had traveled to Turfway Park on Sunday for his 999th win aboard St. Ivan for trainer Mike Maker.

Wednesday’s win was his second with Peach Bottom and fourth overall during the current meet.

Gulfstream Park Handicap attracts 29 nominees

Next Saturday’s $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap closed with 29 nominations. The one-mile, Grade 2 fixture is expected to rematch the first and second finishers from last month’s seven-furlong Gulfstream Park Sprint Handicap, Tackleberry and Soaring Empire. Trainer Rick Dutrow also is eyeing the race with I Want Revenge, assuming that the Donn Handicap fourth-place finisher does not receive an invitation to the $10 million Dubai World Cup before next weekend.

Other horses of note on the nomination list include Capt. Candyman Can, Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner Eldaaafer, Duke of Mischief, Morning Line, Rule, and Dutrow’s Yawanna Twist.

Yawanna Twist, an impressive allowance winner in his 4-year-old debut earlier in the meet, worked six furlongs in 1:13.80 under exercise rider Michelle Nevin here Thursday.