07/05/2005 11:00PM

Limehouse travels for the gold

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Limehouse will compete in the Grade 1, $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday.

Precocious enough to win his debut and two subsequent stakes races at age 2, rugged enough to finish fourth last year in the Kentucky Derby after three spring preps, and durable enough this year to run perhaps the best race of his life in last month's Brooklyn Handicap, Limehouse is a modern-day rarity, a 4-year-old colt who has remained at or near the top of his class for three straight seasons.

After getting an extended vacation last fall because of surgery for an ankle chip, Limehouse developed physically, becoming an even sturdier, stronger version of his chiseled self. He broke a seven-race losing streak with a victory in the Alysheba Stakes in May at Churchill Downs, then came right back and dominated a good field in the Brooklyn on the Belmont Stakes undercard.

Limehouse set his sights west on Wednesday. He traveled to California, where on Saturday he will compete in the Grade 1, $750,000 at Hollywood Park. Although Eastern-based horsemen are often reluctant to ship horses west this time of year, the Gold Cup has been a glorious anomaly, with victories by Cigar, Skip Away, and Sultry Song in the last dozen years. Limehouse seems equally likely to adapt, being as he already has raced at nine different tracks in his 17 starts, winning seven times.

"He's always been a favorite of ours," Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Limehouse, said Wednesday. "He's one of those who's easy to train, easy on himself. He shows up on game day. He's one of those who takes his practices a little easier than his races."

"He's always been a really pleasant horse, except that right up on a race he can get a little nippy," Cot Campbell, the president of the Dogwood Stable partnership that owns Limehouse, said Wednesday from his office in South Carolina. "When he's been here in Aiken, he'll almost stop a post parade if he sees me with a peppermint. And he'll go to sleep at the drop of a hat. He's got a nice personality."

Campbell purchased Limehouse, a son of Grand Slam, at the Saratoga yearling sale in 2002 for $140,000. Paul Orrefice, Dick Kelso, Vernon Brinson, and the partnership of John Bitzer and Howie Ulfelder bought into the colt, which Dogwood manages.

Limehouse won his first start in April 2003 at Keeneland, then scored a mild upset in his next start, the Three Chimneys Juvenile, on Kentucky Derby Day. One year later - following victories in the Hutcheson Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby - he finished fourth to Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby.

"He's been an interesting horse in that, even though he trained well, he probably wasn't at his very best at 4 1/2 furlongs, but despite that he won his debut at Keeneland," Pletcher recalled. "When he won his next start, you could see then that was one of those horses who was beyond his years. He was willing to come between horses, take dirt, and most of the time it takes an experienced horse to handle that. He's hard-trying and very consistent."

When Limehouse finished sixth in last year's Ohio Derby, stopping badly after looming a threat on the turn, it figured that something was amiss. He had a chip in an ankle, which was removed by Dr. Larry Bramlage in Kentucky.

Limehouse had been in steady training for nearly a year and a half before that enforced vacation. The time off did wonders for him physically.

"He was a different horse," Campbell said. "He came back burlier. He's a solid horse, a bulky kind of horse with good size and a shoulder that's become rather massive."

Limehouse ran second in his 2005 debut, the Mr. Prospector Handicap, to Saratoga County, who subsequently won the Golden Shaheen sprint in Dubai. Limehouse then finished fourth in the Sunshine Millions Classic after breaking from post 10 in the 1 1/8-mile race at Gulfstream.

"Unfortunately, as we saw as the meet went on, it was impossible to win with an outside post at that distance at Gulfstream," Pletcher said. "He could never save any ground. I really think he could have won with an inside post."

Limehouse finished a game second to Badge of Silver in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds, then lost all chance in the Oaklawn Handicap when he leaped in the air at the start. Victories in the Alysheba and Brooklyn followed.

Limehouse was also considered for last week's Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park, but the Gold Cup won out.

"It was a hell of a tough decision," Campbell said, "and it got tougher when Eddington came out of the Suburban. The plus factor was Limehouse gets another week, and he likes about a month between races. And even with Eddington gone, the Gold Cup might be a slightly easier spot, though I may rue the day I said that. With the harder track in California, he may get a mile and a quarter easier in California than New York. The negative was we had to ship, instead of staying home."

That's something the unflappable Limehouse should not mind. Hollywood Park will be the 10th track at which he has raced, and he has already won races at five different tracks.