02/10/2007 12:00AM

Master Command wins machine-like

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NEW ORLEANS - Master Command raced like a machine on Saturday in the Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds, clicking off 12-second furlongs from start to finish. No other horse could. Up on the pace throughout the race, Master Command quickly drew away when he turned into the stretch and won the Grade 3, $194,000 Mineshaft by six lengths over late-running Patriot Act, who edged Well Said for place money.

"That seems to be what he does best," said Todd Pletcher, "click off those 12's."

Pletcher, back from a 45-day suspension, saddled Master Command in the Mineshaft, but the horse raced Saturday for assistant trainer Michael McCarthy.

Master Command ($3.40), off a touch slow, was hung three wide on the first turn, but it didn't matter. With Purim just in front of him and on the inside, Master Command contested splits of 24.23 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 48.02 for the half, and 1:12.11 for three-quarters before leaving behind his five rivals.

Master Command, who won the Grade 2 Meadowlands Breeders' Cup last fall, finished in 1:42.28 for 1 1/16 miles - a perfectly even pace, and a new stakes record.

"He was going well the whole way," said winning rider John Velazquez. "When I asked him at the top of the stretch, he responded. He got to wandering a little at the sixteenth pole, but he was good enough."

Pletcher said Master Command was likely to return to Fair Grounds for the New Orleans Handicap next month.

The race's disappointment was second-choice Welcome Again, who wound up last.

"He felt comfortable, but he just ran even today," said jockey Javier Castellano.

Fair Grounds BC: Cloudy's Knight wins

What is it about Chicago horses and the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap? Illinois-bred Mystery Giver won the race three years in a row, and Illinois-bred Fort Prado won it last year when the Fair Grounds meet was moved to Louisiana Downs. Saturday, it was Cloudy's Knight, who wound up here this winter with trainer Jimmy McMullen because the trainer Frank Kirby winters in frozen Illinois.

Cloudy's Knight, a monster of a chestnut horse who stands well over 17 hands tall, finished third in the first two older-male turf stakes this meet, but broke through with a gritty sustained run in the $198,500 Fair Grounds BC, beating Devilment by a neck. Storm Treasure finished fastest for third, and was followed by Transduction Gold and Fort Prado, the 9-5 favorite. Cloudy's Knight ($15.60) was timed in 1:49.48 for the 1o1/8 miles on turf, the second turf-stakes record of the afternoon.

McMullen, wintering in the Fair Grounds for the first time, had yet to win a race at the meet, but many of his horses had run well while falling just short.

"The owner [the SJC Stables of Shirley and Jerrold Schwartz] was gracious enough to give him to me for the winter," McMullen said. "He's trained so well here."

Aboard for the victory was another transplanted Chicagoan, Ramsey Zimmerman, who only came to Fair Grounds in mid-meet after riding at Hawthorne's fall-winter meet. Zimmerman, like McMullen, has never been based here before.

Cloudy's Knight, 7, had won an overnight stakes before, but this was by far the best win of his career. To get it, he had to run down Devilment, who turned for home with a clear lead after contesting a soft pace of 24.80 seconds for the first quarter and 49.37 seconds to the half.

"He tried so hard, and to just get beat like that," said jockey Donnie Meche, shaking his head.

Taylor's Special: Sharp win for Gaff

Gaff laid close to a fast pace and took command at the eighth pole under a heady ride from Donnie Meche to win the $100,000 Taylor's Special at about 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf.

Storm Surge and Chosen Chief vied for the lead through blazing fractions of 22.07 seconds for a quarter-mile and 45.36 for a half, while Meche waited patiently, easing back from between horses before making his move at the leaders. Meche angled his horse out around the turn and asked Gaff to run turning for home. A 5-year-old son of Maria's Mon, Gaff surged to the front in midstretch, then drew off late while being timed in 1:03.12, precisely .22 seconds off the course record.

"He broke sharply and he got squeezed a little early," said Meche. "I eased him to the outside and he just took off."

Gaff, trained by Steve Asmussen, finished 1 1/2 lengths clear of favored Wrzescz, who closed wide for place, a half-length in front of Santana Strings. Santana Strings finished a half-length clear of fourth-place finisher Chosen Chief.

Gaff paid $8 to win.

- additional reporting by John Swenson