03/02/2006 1:00AM

Pletcher: Harlington will like Handicap distance


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Todd Pletcher already has graded stakes winners Flower Alley, Magna Graduate, and Bandini leading his brigade in the handicap division. He hopes to add Harlington to the mix Saturday, when Harlington runs in the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap.

A winner of 4 of 5 starts, Harling-ton has been most impressive winning two straight allowance races since returning from ankle surgery. While his most recent wins have been at 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles, Pletcher said he believes Harlington wants even more distance, something he'll get in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, run at 1 3/16 miles.

"He's one of those horses who's a big, long-striding horse that's always given us the impression that he wants more distance, and he's a quality horse," said Pletcher, who trains Harlington for Eugene and Laura Melnyk. "He's won 4 of his first 5 starts, and I think he's a horse that's still learning. We look forward to stretching him out to a mile and three-sixteenths. Obviously, this is going to be a big step up in competition, but he's done everything to deserve that chance."

, a son of champions Unbridled and Serena's Song, faces seven rivals, including multiple graded stakes winners Funny Cide, Suave, and Sun King.

Harlington won his first two career starts before finishing sixth as the favorite in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 12. He came out of that race with a wrenched ankle and was sidelined for almost nine months. He returned with a five-length allowance win at Aqueduct on Dec. 4 before winning a third-level allowance here on Feb. 8. Harlington, who is 2 for 2 at Gulfstream, breaks from post 4 under John Velazquez.

If is ever going to rekindle the glory of three years ago, when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, this may be his best chance. Funny Cide, who missed six months in 2005 because of a back injury, has already run twice at this meet. He was run off his feet in the six-furlong Mr. Prospector Handicap, in which he finished seventh, but ran much better when second in a one-mile allowance race Feb. 2. Now, Funny Cide stretches out to his preferred distance, and his trainer, Barclay Tagg, said he couldn't be more confident.

"He's got a couple of races under his belt, he's training dynamite, he looks good, he feels good," Tagg said. "We've got no excuses. I feel good about it. Right distance, right spot, right track. He's perfect. He's as right as I can get him right now."

The Gulfstream Park Handicap is an extremely important race in the career of Sun King. It will tell trainer Nick Zito whether to keep him in distance races or perhaps shorten him up a bit. A stakes winner at nine furlongs, was well beaten in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles last fall.

"This is a chance to see what Sun King's distance limitations are," said Zito, who will also run Andromeda's Hero in the race. "Let's get it over with. If he won't go that far, we'll just back him up and win the Metropolitan."

Suave, a true marathoner with speed, will try to bounce back from his sixth-place finish in the Donn. Trainer Paul McGee said he is willing to throw the Donn out because of the sloppy track. Suave will likely go for the lead under Rene Douglas from post 2.

Completing the field are O'Connell's, Contante, It's No Joke, and Whos Crying Now.