03/22/2005 12:00AM

Nopex looking tough off last


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he was pleasantly surprised when Nopex returned from an 11-month vacation to win a second-level allowance race on the turf Feb. 14. It will not surprise anybody, though, if Nopex comes right back to defeat an even stronger group of allowance rivals over the same turf course in Thursday's $37,000 allowance feature at Gulfstream Park.

, a son of Jules, began his career in his native Brazil with a pair of easy victories that included a Group 3 win on grass in the spring of 2003. His next start came a year later, for McLaughlin, in a seven-furlong allowance over Gulfstream's main track. He finished fourth following a slow start.

"He injured his shoulder after that race, so we gave him six months off and then brought him down here for the winter," said McLaughlin. "He trained just ordinary over the main track at Payson Park for his return, so he really surprised us when he ran so well. Even though he's won on dirt, it looks like turf will be his best game."

In his return, Nopex rallied from just off the pace to outfinish Not Phone by a half-length going 1 1/8 miles under jockey John Velazquez. He will return at the same distance but with a different rider, Chris DeCarlo, on Thursday.

"I hope he runs equally as well this time as he did the last," said McLaughlin. "If he does, I think he should be tough again."

Nopex will face some stiff opposition in his second start of the season, including Cockleshell, Saint Stephen, and More Bourb.

, trained by Michael Dickinson, began his career with three straight victories last year. He lost his three subsequent starts, all stakes.

Cockleshell has not started since finishing a troubled sixth in Calder's Santa Claus Stakes on Dec. 26, a race won by Old Forester, who recently captured Gulfstream's Canadian Turf Handicap.

, trained by Christophe Clement, comes off an impressive 1 1/2-length win in a second-level allowance, for which he earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 98.

More Bourb, who finished a half-length in front of Cockleshell as the fourth-place finisher in the Santa Claus, opened his 2005 season by rallying from well back to finish third, less than a length behind Big Booster, under third-level allowance conditions on Feb. 12.

Other key contenders in the well-matched field include Knox and Come on Jazz.