02/03/2005 1:00AM

Maddalena moves up to a stakes

Sir Shackleton returns from a four-month break and runs away with Thursday's feature by 4 1/2 lengths for his fifth victory in 10 starts.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Last year's Old Hat Stakes marked the coming-out party for Madcap Escapade, who went on to become a nationally prominent 3-year-old filly. Seeking to follow in her footsteps this year is the fleet Maddalena, who makes her stakes debut Saturday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Old Hat following a pair of fast, well-spaced victories.

Big things were expected from Maddalena early in her career, following a blazing workout at Calder at a 2-year-old sale last year. That helped Maddalena - a daughter of Good and Tough, who has a $6,000 stud fee - to sell for $425,000. She went right on with her training, and crushed maidens at Churchill Downs the week of the Kentucky Derby last year.

Minor injuries kept her on the sidelines for the rest of the year, but when Maddalena returned on Jan. 16, it was as if time had stopped. She picked up right where she left off eight months earlier and pulverized a first-level allowance field by nearly seven lengths.

"She ran well in her debut, and even better last time," said her trainer, Todd Pletcher.

Maddalena's sharp early speed makes her the one to catch in the 6 1/2-furlong Old Hat. And her 102 Beyer Speed Figure is 14 points higher than the best fig run by any of her six rivals.

Pletcher also will send out Portsea, who won the Sandpiper Stakes at Tampa Bay on Jan. 15. Pletcher also considered Portsea for a stakes at Tampa on Saturday, but said the owners "felt like it was more important to try to become graded stakes placed, as opposed to winning another stakes."

"Plus, it didn't appear to be a large field," Pletcher said.

Toll Taker, who won three consecutive races last year, including Belmont's Astarita, makes her first start since stumbling at the start and dislodging her rider at 4-5 in an Illinois-bred stakes race at Hawthorne on Nov. 13.

"She banged the back of an ankle, either leaving the gate, or running loose," said her trainer, Tim Hills. "A hind leg blew up, but in three weeks it was fine. We planned on giving her a rest anyway. It didn't wreck our plans for her as a 3-year-old."

Toll Taker has trained "brilliantly," according to Hills, for this race.

There are several other promising, lightly raced fillies in the Old Hat. Alfonsina has won twice and finished second once in three starts. Late-running Aspen Tree also has never finished worse than second in three starts. Great Intentions was a fast debut winner at Aqueduct, then was a distant second to Maddalena on Jan. 16.

Taking it slowly with Sun King

With the Holy Bull and Hutcheson Stakes on Saturday's card at Gulfstream, the 3-year-old division is ready to hit stride en route to the . Trainer Nick Zito is one of the perennials this time of year, with his annual Derby prospects. Zito has a recent acquisition, G P's Black Knight, in the Holy Bull, but his best 2-year-old from last year, Sun King, is sitting this one out.

Zito is taking his time with Sun King, who finished third in both the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes last fall. On Thursday morning at Palm Meadows, Sun King worked five furlongs in 1:01.40 with exercise Carlos Correa aboard. The time equaled the second-best at the distance. Sun King broke off at the half-mile pole and traveled out a furlong past the finish line.

"I'm hoping to have him back to the races by the end of February," Zito said after watching the work. "All the good 3-year-olds - Rockport Harbor, Afleet Alex, Declan's Moon - they all will be starting around that time. I've got a qualified horse. I want to do it right. I'll do something more with him next week. He's a legitimate horse. He's training very, very well.

"He's coming around. I'm really enjoying his development. He ran a great race in the Champagne. It was a debacle. I didn't want him on the lead. He had to fight Afleet Alex and Proud Accolade. He ran a great race in the Breeders' Cup, too. We didn't really want him on the lead, but he fought after getting bounced off the rail."

Zito said Sun King had his shins fired following the Breeders' Cup, but said he would have had a nice break regardless.

"I just want to make sure he runs three times before the Derby," Zito said. "Once at the end of February, then in March, then in April."

Zito has several other 3-year-old cots in races on Saturday, including Andromeda's Hero and Indy's Storm in allowance races, and Noble Causeway in a maiden race.

Sir Shackleton wins feature

Sir Shackleton, last year's West Virginia Derby winner, returned from a four-month freshening and was a runaway winner of Thursday's featured $46,000 money-allowance.

With Javier Castellano aboard, Sir Shackleton rallied wide while in the best part of the racetrack for a 4 1/2-length victory over favored Added Edge. Country Judge was third.

Sir Shackleton covered one mile in 1:35.89 on the fast main track. The 4-year-old colt has won five times in 10 starts for trainer Nick Zito.

"That was a tremendous race. It wasn't an easy field," Zito said. "He just needed a little rest after his last race. We're going to keep him on ice for awhile. Our goal is the Met Mile."

Badge of Silver New Orleans-bound

Badge of Silver won last month's Hal's Hope Handicap, Gulfstream's major prep for Saturday's Donn Handicap. But he is not racing in the Donn, in part because his owners, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, have Roses in May in the race, and in part because trainer Bobby Frankel preferred to await next month's New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds.

"He likes that track," Frankel said.

The Ramseys had their first champion last year in Kitten's Joy, who won the Eclipse Award as best male turf horse. Kitten's Joy has not raced since he finished second in the Breeders' Cup Turf. He came out of the race with a chip in his left knee, which was removed surgically by Dr. Larry Bramlage.

But Kitten's Joy has taken his first steps toward his 4-year-old debut. Trainer Dale Romans said Kitten's Joy "started back jogging last week."

"We are a little ahead of the curve because the chip was not in the joint," Romans said. "He got jostled around pretty good in the Breeders' Cup."

Romans said an early season goal would be the Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day, "but we're not going to press him to make it."

Touted filly fails in debut

Every once in a while, a horse is widely touted on the backside, and anticipation runs high. Such was the case in Thursday's seventh race, when Quest to Peak, a full sister to Sightseek, made her first start.

Around the barn of her trainer, Bobby Frankel, the praise was high between exercise riders Jose Cuevas and Nuno Santos. Angel Cordero Jr., who had worked Quest to Peak, put his opinion of Quest to Peak in the following perspective: "I've only been wrong twice. The first time, I rode Affirmed as a 2-year-old going six furlongs. He was all out to win. I never thought he'd win the Kentucky Derby. But he won the Triple Crown. The second time was once when I picked a girlfriend."

"I hope they're right," Frankel said.

Quest to Peak was bet down to the race favorite, but she faded after battling for the early lead while stuck on the rail, which appeared to be the worst part of the track Thursday.

Frankel stuck around South Florida in order to watch Quest to Peak run. He left immediately after the race for the Carnivale celebration in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

Survivalist to go in Donn

Survivalist, one of trainer Shug McGaughey's top 3-year-old prospects, will launch his 2005 campaign in the second race on Saturday's Donn Handicap undercard.

Survivalist, a son of Danzig, has not started since winning his maiden by 8 1/2 lengths going a mile at Belmont Park on Oct. 9. He has trained steadily for his return since arriving in south Florida in December.

Among Survivalist's main opposition in the seven-furlong dash are trainer Bill Mott's Around the Cape and Nick Zito's Andromeda's Hero, both of whom are also coming off impressive maiden victories.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch