02/02/2010 1:00AM

Leading the charge


Every time we see a story about a graded stakes race for older horses the name Quality Road usually is included in the first sentence. And yes, I just included him in my first sentence.

Why? Because Quality Road is scheduled to run in the Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Saturday, and most racing observers expect him to be the horse that will lead this year's handicap division to greater glory than last year's uninspiring bunch.

Fact is, the handicap division of 2009 was so weak that it was difficult to pick a division leader for an Eclipse Award, with turf specialist Gio Ponti winning the trophy virtually by default over sprinter-miler Kodiak Kowboy.

Ever since last February and March, when he won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in dazzling style for trainer Jimmy Jerkens, Quality Road was expected to emerge as one of the top horses born in 2006. Unfortunately, his schedule was rudely interrupted by a series of quarter cracks, and owner Edward P. Evans eventually moved the horse from Jerkens to Todd Pletcher.

While Pletcher did get Quality Road ready to win the Amsterdam at 6 1/2 furlongs early in the Saratoga meet and may have rushed him a bit to make the 10-furlong Travers 26 days later, his third-place Travers finish was just a stepping-stone for Quality Road's strong second-place performance to the fully mature Summer Bird in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Oct. 3.

Those three races during an eight-week span supposedly set Quality Road up for a serious run in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 7. But the son of Elusive Quality was removed from the Breeders' Cup stage before the gates opened for repeatedly refusing to load smoothly into his starting stall. The high-strung colt was so unnerved that he pulled a similar stunt at the airport the next day and had to be vanned instead to Pletcher's barn at Churchill Downs. Such intemperance left many questions about Quality Road's mental stability and his potential to live up to his inherent talent.

During the two months since the BC debacle, Pletcher seemed to have gotten Quality Road back on the right track. This was confirmed when the colt returned to win the one-mile Hal's Hope at Gulfstream on Jan. 3 with one of the smoothest performances of his career. Now he is going to be a probable odds-on favorite to win the nine-furlong Donn and emerge as an early-season leader of the older male division, pending of course the return of Summer Bird from a minor operation this winter and whoever comes up big in the Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita on the same day as the Donn, or the San Antonio for 4-year-olds and up at the same Southern California track the following day.

In the Donn, Quality Road's moderately accomplished rivals may include Duke of Mischief, Kiss the Kid, and Mambo Meister, the one-two-three finishers in the Grade 3 Ft. Lauderdale over the track Jan. 10, and possibly the versatile millionaire Delightful Kiss and the erratic Helsinki, both of whom may go instead in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf, a nine-furlong Grade 1 grass race on the Donn card. Others whose status will be decided later in the week include Le Grand Cru, a two-time winner of one-turn Grade 3 stakes in New York last year; You and I Forever, who finished second to Quality Road in the Hal's Hope; Timber Reserve, a winner of $753,957 who began his 2010 campaign with a game allowance win over the track on Jan. 18; and perhaps Friesan Fire, last year's failed Kentucky Derby favorite who returned to good form on Jan. 23 with a convincing win in the Louisiana Handicap at the Fair Grounds.

At the bottom line, it might be foolish to bet against Quality Road, given his impeccable record of 3 wins in 3 attempts over the Gulfstream Park racing surface and his promising return to top form in the Hal's Hope. But aside from Friesan Fire, who could be a legit upset threat if he makes the journey from New Orleans, the one horse who will deserve an upset look is Timber Reserve, who also loves the Gulfstream surface, which has proven to be an important factor in everyday handicapping at this south Florida track.

In the $200,000 Strub, Misremembered is in position to take an important step forward after finishing a good second in the seven-furlong Malibu on opening day, Dec. 26. Last year the Bob Baffert trainee won a pair of Grade 2 stakes for 3-year-olds and finished his 2009 season with a sharp second to the late-blooming Blame in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Misremembered's probable rivals include Massone, a persistent factor in graded stakes at tracks in California, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas; Smart Bid, Rendezvouz, and Viscount, second, third, and fourth in the San Fernando over the track on Jan 16; plus the intriguing Eagle Poise, a stout-hearted son of Empire Maker who exhibited good speed while winning 4 of his last 6 outings at Woodbine on Polytrack and turf in 2009.

Owned by Juddmonte Farms, Eagle Poise now is trained by Hall of Famer Billy Mott, who shipped him from Florida in early January to prepare for this race and the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.

In the $150,000 San Antonio Handicap on Sunday, the leading contenders include the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Furthest Land; Marsh Side, a $1.8 million earner on the turf with limited main-track experience; Mast Track, a speedy 6-year-old who won the Grade 3 Native Diver at Hollywood in December and has 2 wins in 8 tries on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride; and Richard's Kid, the 2009 Pacific Classic winner who was sixth in Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup Classic.

As suggested above, this pair of nine-furlong stakes run on consecutive days at Santa Anita no doubt will provide many logical contenders for the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap. By that time we probably will know where 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and unbeaten Zenyatta will be running and whether they will have serious competition this year from Quality Road, Misremembered, and the group of older male horses who are running in Florida and California this weekend.