03/04/2006 12:00AM

Harlington triumphs on the rise

Harlington, under John Velazquez, takes the lead from It's No Joke in the stretch of the Gulfstream Cap. He held off Contante to earn the win.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - While trainer Todd Pletcher awaits the return of his top older horse Flower Alley to his barn, he continues to stockpile suitable reserves in the handicap division.

Harlington made a successful jump from allowance company to the graded-stakes ranks with a hard-fought neck victory over longshot Contante in the Grade 2, $300,000 before 10,250 at Gulfstream. It was another three-quarters of a length back to It's No Joke.

Whos Crying Now finished fourth followed by Andromeda's Hero, Suave, Funny Cide, and Sun King.

Harlington, a son of champions Unbridled and Serena's Song, raised his record to 5 wins from 6 starts and won his first graded stakes for Eugene and Laura Melnyk, who also happen to own Flower Alley, last year's Travers winner and Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up. Flower Alley is targeted for a return to the races in June or July, Pletcher said.

Harlington won despite making the lead prematurely and loafing. Under John Velazquez, Harlington raced in fifth while It's No Joke, Suave, Funny Cide, and Sun King raced in a line through the early stages of the race.

When Velazquez guided Harlington to the inside down the backstretch, he saw daylight and dragged Velazquez to the lead at the three-furlong marker, much earlier than his connections had planned. According to Velazquez, Harlington began to wait on horses.

Velazquez took Harlington to the outside and when It's No Joke began to come back on along the inside Velazquez resorted to an aggressive right-handed whip and Harlington responded to gain the victory. Harlington covered the 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.18 and returned $7.40 as the second choice.

"Once he got somebody next to him he started running again," Velazquez said. "It's one of those things he got to the lead too early."

Pletcher is excited about the future for Harlington because he believes he's still learning how to run. Harlington missed most of his 3-year-old season due to an ankle injury.

"He's just an enormously talented horse that's able to do those kinds of things without being totally focused just yet," Pletcher said. "Even though he's come a long way in a relatively short number of races he's still not battle seasoned."

Pletcher said he would like to keep Harlington at races beyond 1 1/8 miles and is setting his sights on the Pimlico Special on May 19. Pletcher may try to find a spot for him before then.

Meanwhile, the connections of Funny Cide will have some soul-searching to do. Trainer Barclay Tagg was supremely confident entering this race. After dueling for the lead, Funny Cide backed up and was beaten 10 lengths.

"Maybe he's just not as good as he was," Tagg said.