10/06/2011 3:24PM

Hawthorne Gold Cup distance puts Rule to the test

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STICKNEY, Ill. – Stand at the head of the Hawthorne homestretch, and you nearly need binoculars to make out the finish line 1,320 feet away. The stretch run at Hawthorne is among the longest in the country, the racing surface here often loose and laboring. There is nowhere for a horse short on stamina to hide, especially in the 1 1/4-mile Hawthorne Gold Cup, Saturday’s feature and the highlight of the Hawthorne meet.

All this applies directly to Rule, the Todd Pletcher-trained 4-year-old who might be favored to win the Grade 2, $500,000 Gold Cup over Giant Oak and eight others. Rule, admirable and accomplished, has won 5 of 14 starts while banking more than $1 million, a good deal of that coming from his 2009 win in the rich Delta Jackpot. Rule won a minor stakes over 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga this summer and most recently was third behind Havre de Grace and Flat Out in the Woodward Stakes at the same distance. He has yet to race 1 1/4 miles, however, and, being a son of Roman Ruler, is not especially bred for the trip.

“The way he ran over one and one-eighth miles at Saratoga gives us hope that he can get the distance,” said Pletcher, who won the 2008 Gold Cup with Fairbanks, a truly longwinded runner.

Rule, who prefers to race near the lead, will break from post 3, inside the race’s other main speed, Cherokee Lord, but Pletcher suggested jockey Corey Lanerie would not be gunning for the front end.

“It looks like there’s some other speed in there, and I’d expect to see him in a stalking position,” Pletcher said. “He’s versatile.”

While Lanerie tries to ration Rule’s speed, trainer Chris Block will be exhorting the front-runners to fly through early fractions. Block entered Giant Oak, the morning-line favorite, and Mister Marti Gras in the Gold Cup, two closers who would benefit from a quick, contested pace. Giant Oak finished second in the 2010 Gold Cup, rallying from 17 lengths behind to come within three-quarters of a length of Redding Colliery. Giant Oak has lost five in a row since winning the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 5, all those losses coming in races where the half-mile split was, at best, moderate.

“He needs pace, and the other thing with him is you’ve got to take him to the outside,” Block said. “He’s not real versatile. You can’t stick him behind horses, wait on him to find room. You have to give up ground, have it timed properly. He’s got to have that perfect setup.”

Mister Marti Gras has made 13 of 17 starts on turf or synthetic but has a win and two seconds in four dirt races and, like Giant Oak, probably can get the 1 1/4-mile distance.

“He’s training well over the dirt, and he does his best in the stretch,” Block said.

The 4-year-old filly Maristar, third behind Mister Marti Gras in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington last month, has won over 1 1/16 miles but has never raced or worked on dirt. Worldly, who has tactical speed and drew the rail, is the only horse in the Gold Cup with a 1 1/4-mile dirt win, but has so far not demonstrated the quality to win at this class level. The same can be said of Moe Man, and Cherokee Lord looks like a grass horse, but the three others might have a chance to win.

Where’s Sterling won the Iselin Handicap on Aug. 20 at Monmouth in his most recent race and appears to run well fresh. He races in the colors of Frank Calabrese, the perennial leading Chicago owner before moving his operation East this year.

Headache won the Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows over venerable Awesome Gem, then had a less-than-ideal journey when fifth in the Whitney Handicap on Aug. 6 at Saratoga, his most recent start.

“He was kind of stuck on the rail, and that’s not his favorite spot,” said trainer Mike Maker, who won the 2004 Gold Cup with Freefourinternet. Headache has finished second in his two 10-furlong races, and Maker said he thought the distance “isn’t going to be an issue at all.”

Finally, Cease is an interesting prospect while taking a major class rise for trainer Al Stall and owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. Cease made his first three starts on turf and synthetic and won two races at Saratoga – both in the mud – by almost 17 lengths combined.

“I’m hoping he’s not just a mudlark freak,” Stall said. “We know he’ll do the trip.”

Two stakes on undercard

Two $60,000 turf stakes, the Indian Maid for females and the Robert F. Carey for males, are the supporting features on a 10-race card starting at 1:40. The Indian Maid might have Seniga as a solid favorite, but the Carey appears to be wide open. Proceed Bee won the 2009 Hawthorne Derby over this course and fits as well as anyone.

Saturday’s weather should be ideal, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the high 70s.