03/01/2008 12:00AM

Laurel: Gattopardo steps up

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Fresh off a smashing first-level allowance win, Gattopardo made his stakes debut a success, winning the the $55,200 Miracle Wood for 3-year-olds by 2 3/4 lengths at Laurel.

A Triple Crown-nominated son of Johannesburg, Gattopardo improved his record to 3 wins and 3 seconds in 6 starts for Germania Farms Inc. and trainer Tim Tullock.

Running on or within a head of the lead in all his previous starts, Gattopardo showed a new skill in the seven-furlong Miracle Wood. He sat calmly under Julian Pimentel just off pacesetter Cave's Valley, a recent two-time disappointment whose connections had added blinkers for this race and were looking for a rebound.

Gattopardo and Cave's Valley ran one-two through lively fractions of 23.20 seconds for a quarter-mile and 46.38 for a half, but soon after straightening into the stretch, Gattopardo began edging away.

Apple Special, third on the backstretch and into the turn, rallied for second, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Cave's Valley, who held on for third. Oliver Castillo, who had ridden both Gattopardo and Apple Special in their last starts, rode Apple Special.

Gattopardo was timed in 1:24.16 over a fast track and paid $5.20 as the favorite.

Gattopardo will likely start next in the Grade 3 Bay Shore at Aqueduct on April 5, Tullock indicated, and if goes well he would point towards the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on May 17.

"He is a wonderful horse but needs more time," Tullock said. "He has not won the route of ground yet. I am hopeful he runs well in the Bay Shore and after one more start look at the Preakness."