02/07/2010 12:00AM

Quality Road gets his act together

Barbara D. Livingston
Quality Road will try to show off his talent and not his eccentricities in Saturday's Grade 1 Donn at Gulfstream Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Quality Road has probably gained more attention to this point in his roller-coaster career for races he did not compete in than those he did. Now it's time for the talented but star-crossed Quality Road to begin receiving recognition for his ontrack accomplishments. There would be no better way to start than with a victory in a prestigious event such as Saturday's Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

The $500,000 Donn is one of two Grade 1 races and three graded stakes on Saturday's card, along with the Grade 1, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf and the Grade 3, $125,000 Suwannee River.

Quality Road missed out on the opportunity to compete in the two most important races on his agenda last year at 3, the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. Quality Road would likely have been favored in the Derby if not forced to the sidelines by a foot injury he sustained less than two weeks before the race. He did make it all the way to the starting gate for the Classic, but he was scratched after becoming extremely agitated and failing to load properly following numerous attempts by the Santa Anita gate crew.

But for all his eccentricities, there is little doubt about Quality Road's brilliance when given the opportunity to race. A son of Elusive Quality owned by Edward P. Evans, Quality Road was a sensation right from the start, earning a 101 Beyer Speed Figure capturing his career debut at 2. He was even better early at 3, posting back-to-back impressive victories at Gulfstream in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby.

Quality Road was eventually transferred by Evans from trainer Jimmy Jerkens to Todd Pletcher last summer and closed out his 3-year-old campaign with three big efforts: a victory in the Grade 2 Amsterdam, a second-place finish against older horses in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, and a third in the Grade 1 Travers.

Following his experience at the Breeders' Cup, Quality Road was sent back to New York with thoughts of competing in Aqueduct's Cigar Mile, although that start never materialized. While there, he schooled extensively at the starting gate and continued to do so upon arriving at Pletcher's winter headquarters at Palm Meadows in December.

All the hard work paid off when Quality Road finally returned to action here opening day in the Grade 3 Hal's Hope. On his best behavior throughout the post parade and at the gate, Quality Road disputed a soft early pace before drawing away from You and I Forever through the final furlong en route to a very professional 2 3/4-length victory.

"I thought the Hal's Hope was a good comeback and we were finally able to put all the negativity of the Breeders' Cup behind us," said Pletcher. "It didn't appear to be an overtaxing race on him and he's trained exactly like we wanted him to after that with three breezes and multiple gate-schooling sessions. He'll be giving away some fairly significant weight to some awfully nice horses on Saturday, but I anticipate him to go over and run his 'A' race."

Quality Road will carry high weight of 123 pounds, including John Velazquez, in the Donn, conceding from six to 10 pounds to his nine rivals.

You and I Forever will be back to take another run at Quality Road on Saturday while receiving a two-pound concession off their previous meeting. You and I Forever, whose most notable effort prior to the Hal's Hope was a second in the Grade 2 Jerome Handicap, raced in the somewhat deeper going along the rail when making a big move around the turn to challenge Quality Road.

Duke of Mischief, Kiss the Kid, Mambo Meister, and Dry Martini, the first four finishers in the Grade 3 Ft. Lauderdale on Jan. 10, will all wheel back in the Donn.

Duke of Mischief rallied from near the rear of the pack to a neck decision over Kiss the Kid while making his first start in three months in the Ft. Lauderdale, which was switched from the turf to the main track due to inclement weather. The Donn will mark Duke of Mischief's second start in a Grade 1 race. He finished fifth, 8o1/2 lengths behind Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, in the 2009 Haskell.

Trainer Phil Gleaves said he and his connections wrestled for two hours on Wednesday trying to decide whether to run Mambo Meister in the Donn or the Gulfstream Park Turf.

"We actually entered him in the Turf at first then switched him back to the Donn after taking a vote of the partners," said Gleaves. "To tell the truth I'm still not sure which is his best surface, turf or dirt. All I do know is that he continues to improve and couldn't be doing better."