02/05/2008 12:00AM

No easy task for National Captain


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - After watching National Captain lose by a neck and three-quarters of a length in Grade 3 races in his last two starts, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin decided to drop the South African-bred into softer company in hopes of getting him back on the winning track.

Unfortunately for McLaughlin, several of his colleagues with stakes-caliber turf horses had a similar idea, making Thursday's $100,000 optional claiming feature at Gulfstream Park one of the tougher and more intriguing races of the meet.

The field for the 1 1/8-mile race also includes Grade 3 winner Can't Beat It, the Grade 2-placed True Cause, multiple graded-stakes-placed Minister's Joy, stakes winners Gimme Credit and Yankee Master, and the improving Salinja.

Alarming Afleet is the only horse entered for the $100,000 tag. The other nine are eligible under the money allowance conditions of the race.

National Captain finished second, a neck behind Ballast, in Calder's 1 1/8-mile Tropical Turf Handicap to conclude his 2007 campaign, and was third, less than a length behind Host after taking the lead near midstretch, last month in the Canadian Turf Handicap.

"He really had no excuses in those two races, but he's doing great and I was just trying to drop him down into allowance company to give him a chance to win one," said McLaughlin.

Can't Beat It, winner of the Grade 3 Calder Derby and runner-up in the Grade 2 American Derby at 3, has not started since finishing seventh in the Grade 2 Dixie Handicap at Pimlico last May 19. He was transferred to trainer Christophe Clement's barn shortly after that race but was returned to owner Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Farm for some time off when he did not work to Clement's satisfaction last summer in New York.

"He's trained well since coming back to me but might need the race," said Clement.

True Cause makes his first start since finishing second, beaten a length by Dave, in Aqueduct's Grade 2 Red Smith Handicap on Nov. 10.

The stretch-running Minister's Joy finished third, less than a length behind National Captain, in the Tropical Turf and sixth behind Einstein in an allowance here on Jan. 11.

Yankee Master is coming off a pair of allowance victories and appears to be rounding back to the form that saw him become a stakes winner at 3 in just his second start.

Salinja, fourth in the Tropical Turf, was runner-up to Einstein in his 2008 debut.