02/05/2009 1:00AM

Lieutenant Ron makes '09 bow

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Barbara D. Livingston
Kiaran McLaughlin trains the promising Lieutenant Ron, who runs in a six-furlong optional claimer on Thursday at Gulfstream.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin had several alternatives for Lieutenant Ron's 2009 debut. In the end, he chose Thursday's eighth race at Gulfstream Park, a $46,000 optional claiming dash at six furlongs.

Lieutenant Ron had been nominated to the Grade 3 Hal's Hope Stakes here opening day. A Florida-bred, he also was eligible for the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic. Those two races were decided at a mile and 1 1/8 miles, respectively. Lietuenant Ron has yet to win beyond seven furlongs.

"We could have done a few different things with him and wound up in a three-other-than," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin was hoping to use Lieutenant Ron's stakes debut in the Grade 3, nine-furlong Discovery Handicap last November at Aqueduct as a springboard to more lucrative assignments. But Lieutenant Ron turned in a disappointing performance that afternoon, finishing a tiring fifth as the 6-5 favorite after racing wide throughout.

"I don't like to make excuses, but that last race was run over a very unbalanced stage," said McLaughlin, referring to the Nov. 22 racetrack at Aqueduct.

Lieutenant Ron had won 3 of his 4 starts prior to the Discovery, all by lopsided margins ranging from 3 1/2 to 8 3/4 lengths. He's also had his promising career put on hold twice due to various issues.

"He's training well," said McLaughlin, who will again have regular rider Alan Garcia in the irons.

Lieutentant Ron will face eight rivals in his return, including the graded-stakes-placed Gentleman James and the comebacking First Word.

Gentleman James finished second behind Golden Spikes in a pair of stakes, including the Grade 2 Carry Back last summer at Calder. Following two disappointing efforts in graded sprint races out of town, Gentleman James returned home to finish the season at Calder with an allowance win and a second-place finish behind recent Mr. Prospector winner Ikigai.

First Word is a question mark returning from a 15-month layoff under a $75,000 claiming tag for trainer Bobby Frankel. In his most recent start, First Word, 7, earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure winning a higher-priced optional claiming dash at Churchill Downs in November 2007.

Completing the lineup are Johns Groom, who has been idle since finishing third in an overnight stakes at Philadelphia Park last April, Dragon Fi, I Ain't No Saint, Hometown Boy, Rexson's Rose, and Green Vegas.