05/29/2012 1:16PM

Hollywood Park: Morning Line marches to own beat

Shigeki Kikkawa
Morning Line, with Joe Talamo riding, wins the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Morning Line can be described in several ways – millionaire, multiple stakes winner, independent thinker.

Earlier this month, he displayed all those characteristics before a win in the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park. At post time, eight of the nine runners were assembled near the starting gate.

Morning Line was almost a quarter-mile away, at the top of the stretch, with jockey Joe Talamo off the horse.

It took coaxing from a pony boy, an outrider, the track veterinarian, and Talamo to get Morning Line to the gate. He arrived a few minutes late, left the gate in front, and led throughout the Mervyn LeRoy.

The win was Morning Line’s third stakes victory of his career in his first start for trainer John Shirreffs. The California circuit had a much-needed new member to the handicap division, albeit one with flaky tendencies.

How much Morning Line can accomplish this year will be better known after Saturday’s $150,000 Californian Stakes, a key prep for the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 7. So far this year, preparing Morning Line has been both a frustration and fascination for Shirreffs.

“Hmm, he’s been a pleasure,” Shirreffs said, with a wry grin. “I wish everyone had one just like him.”

At times, Shirreffs says, the horse is easy to work with, and other times, he can be ornery.

“He’s an independent thinker,” Shirreffs said after the Mervyn LeRoy.

Owned by Will Farish, Dixiana Stable, and Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable, Morning Line has won 5 of 13 starts and $1,212,300. Previously trained by Nick Zito, Morning Line was well accomplished before joining Shirreffs’s stable last fall. He won the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing in September 2010 and was a heart-breaking second, by a head to Dakota Phone, in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs that fall.

As a 4-year-old in 2011, Morning Line had mixed form. He won the Grade 1 Carter Handicap over seven furlongs at Aqueduct in April, but was fifth in the Grade 3 Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park in July and last of 11 in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in August. The Whitney was Morning Line’s final start for Zito.

Typical of a Shirreffs-trained runner, Morning Line was given ample preparation for a comeback, with 16 workouts from early January to early May.

To keep him interested, there is diversity in the way he is trained. Morning Line jogs on Hollywood Park’s backstretch training track and is galloped on the main track.

“He’s probably too smart for us,” Shirreffs said.

Talamo rode Morning Line for the first time in the Mervyn LeRoy. He said the horse is different in training or warmups than he is in a race.

“They do a good job with him in the mornings,” he said. “You have to be patient and take your time. He’s got his own way of thinking. He’s a Cadillac in a race.”

The Shirreffs stable has a history with top horses that did not warm up for long before a race. Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year, often walked into the racetrack for a post parade, strolled under jockey Mike Smith for a furlong or so down the stretch, did little or nothing for five minutes, and then was walked to the starting gate.

Shirreffs said Zenyatta knew the routine and that standing in the middle of the stretch was normal.

“She knew, this is my rest area,” he said. “She stood there, took a few deep breaths, and then went to the gate.”

As evidenced by his win in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, Morning Line can be outstanding in his races. Shirreffs said he was not fully aware of the horse’s past before he did Internet research to watch replays.

“The courage he exhibits in his races is unbelievable,” Shirreffs said. “I watched some of his races on YouTube, and you can see his determination.

“I didn’t know his record, but when I looked at the videos I got excited.”

For Saturday, Shirreffs and Talamo will be better prepared before the Californian. Shirreffs told the jockey not to take Morning Line around the final turn during warmups for the Mervyn Leroy with good reason.

“We won’t have him get so far from the gate,” Shirreffs said. “I told Joe before the last race, ‘Don’t go around the turn in case you can’t get back.’ ”

Saturday, Morning Line will not travel far – before the start. When the race begins, he will be the one to catch.