01/14/2009 1:00AM

Joppa Flat's hard to gauge

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The enigmatic Joppa Flat's, who is capable of stakes-caliber performances on his best days, will have handicappers scratching their heads wondering what to expect when he opens his 2009 campaign in Thursday's six-furlong, $44,000 allowance feature at Gulfstream Park.

Joppa Flat's turned in some big performances but needed an astounding 21 chances before finally winning his maiden last summer at Saratoga. But when he did, what a show he put on, drawing off to a 5 3/4-length victory over a strong field while earning a 100 Beyer Speed Figure.

Unfortunately for those who backed Joppa Flat's to 2-1 for his next start, he could not duplicate the effort in a third-place finish behind trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's stakes-bound National Pride. But Joppa Flat's was at his best again five weeks later, running off the screen to an eight-length entry-level allowance win that produced a stakes-type 106 Beyer Figure.

A repeat of either of his winning efforts would be enough to capture Thursday's second-level allowance. The question is whether he will be on top of his game making his first start in nearly four months, while breaking from the far outside in a field of 12.

"He ran numbers that would win allowance races but didn't break his maiden until last summer at Saratoga," said trainer Bob Ribaudo. "He had a lot of play in him earlier in his career, but he's got his act together now, and that last race at Belmont Park was so big it kind of took its toll on him, so we gave him a little break.

"He's doing well and needs to run. I don't want to say he'll need a race, but this isn't his optimum distance and we didn't draw a great post. But better this time than the next."

McLaughlin could again be the spoiler for Ribaudo and Joppa Flat's with two key contenders in the lineup, the stakes-winning Keep Laughing and South American import Vincero.

Keep Laughing has been sidelined by a chip in his ankle, discovered after his victory in Keeneland's Lafayette Stakes last April. Keep Laughing's two previous starts came locally and included an easy maiden win last winter.

Vincero is a speedy sort who also returns from a long layoff. He has been idle since capturing the Clasico Juvenile Sprint Stakes in Uruguay in mid-May. He figures to force the pace Thursday along with The Duke of Stanco, a former member of the McLaughlin stable but now in the barn of Michael Trombetta.