01/20/2010 12:00AM

Low-profile stable has high hopes


NEW ORLEANS - Clark Hanna, a 42-year-old native of McHenry, Ill., began working full time on the racetrack in 1985. He has been out on his own as a head trainer for 10 years now, and during that tenure has saddled 30 winners. Hanna has participated in seven graded stakes, but all with the same horse, Wise River, a turf miler who actually won the Grade 3 Carey Memorial two falls ago at Hawthorne. After 10 years, Hanna's stable earnings are approaching $1 million. The climb has been slow.

Hanna and his 81-year-old Texas-based owner, Don Benge, don't have Derby fever. Not yet. But if their promising 3-year-old colt Maximus Ruler should step up and win the Grade 3, $100,000 Lecomte Stakes on Saturday at Fair Grounds, a case of it is likely to break out.

Maximus Ruler has won only one race, but it was noteworthy. After a lousy trip cost him victory in his career debut Nov. 14 at Churchill Downs, Maximus Ruler pressed a fast pace, split horses in the stretch, and won an entry-level, one-turn-mile allowance race Nov. 28 at Churchill. He ran a mile in about 1:35.80, and looked good doing it.

Why was the maiden Maximus Ruler even in the allowance? Hanna said he checked with Churchill's racing office to see what chance his horse had to get into a closing-day maiden race there, and under the dates system Churchill employs to give horses an equal chance to compete, Maximus Ruler had little chance of getting into what would be an over-filled maiden race. So Hanna took a chance, ran Maximus Ruler against winners, and emerged with one of the Lecomte favorites.

Benge bought Maximus Ruler privately after he failed to meet a $20,000 reserve at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2008. By Haskell Invitational winner Roman Ruler, Maximus Ruler is out of the Lost Code mare Lost Love, who preferred sprinting herself, but has produced a mix of one- and two-turn horses as a broodmare. Maximus Ruler has the lanky body of a route horse, and Hanna said that in morning training, the colt has shown signs of stamina reserves.

"Every third day I'll have him gallop two miles and pick it up the second time around," Hanna said, "and he doesn't seem to get tired. Of course, training and racing are two different things."

Hanna said he and Benge cleaned out the group of cheaper horses they had a few years ago to focus on higher-quality stock. At the moment, Hanna has 17 head stabled at Fair Grounds, a large group for him.

"It goes up and down all the time," said Hanna.

A Lecomte win - that would be one of the high points.