01/06/2011 2:01PM

Morning Line tries to get Zito off to good year in Hal's Hope

Barbara D. Livingston
Morning Line comes into Saturday's Hal's Hope following back-to-back strong efforts late in his 3-year-old season.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – It has been well documented that 2010 was a successful but frustrating year for trainer Nick Zito, a season of near- misses in major stakes that culminated with Morning Line’s heart-breaking defeat at the hands of Dakota Phone in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

But this is a new year and Zito is upbeat about both his prospects in 2011 and those of Morning Line, the probable favorite and horse to beat in Saturday’s $100,000 Hal’s Hope Handicap at Gulfstream. Park. The Grade 3 Hal’s Hope will be decided at one mile and drew a field of seven that also includes two members of last year’s Florida Derby field, third-place finisher Rule and the steadily improving Soaring Empire.

“Every racing publication painted a picture of us being like the Buffalo Bills last year,” said Zito. “We got close but missed the Super Bowl four times. All those seconds and near-misses in the Travers, Belmont, Kentucky Derby, even the Preakness with Jackson Bend, were frustrating but our horses tried their hearts out and we still won the Florida Derby and Pennsylvania Derby so taking everything into prospective we had to be content with the year we had. If we could have won the Mile with Morning Line it would have really topped it off.”

Morning Line closed out his 3-year-old season in top form, outgaming First Dude and A Little Warm to capture the Pennsylvania Derby before falling just short in the Mile.

Morning Line has done his best racing on or near the lead but figures to be challenged early in the Hal’s Hope by Tackleberry and Rule.

“Fortunately, Tackleberry and Rule are inside so we’ll be okay,” said Zito. “He can rate off them.”

Rule has not started since finishing a game third behind the Zito-trained Ice Box after setting a contested pace in the Florida Derby.

“He was a little sub-par coming out of the Florida Derby so we just backed off and here we are,” said Pletcher. “Hopefully he’ll give us a good effort and then we’ll look at the Donn.”

Soaring Empire finished a troubled eighth in the Florida Derby but really stepped up his game during the second half of his 3-year-old season, finishing third in the Grade 3 Pegasus and winning the Rutgers before capping off the year with a sixth-place effort in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile after acting up at the starting gate. A hot pace scenario would certainly play into Soaring Empire’s favor on Saturday.