02/24/2003 1:00AM

Ruling Star primed to improve


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It can be tough to predict what a horse will do the second start back from a layoff. Will the horse benefit from its comeback race or did the effort tire him out?

Handicappers will have to make that decision twice in Wednesday's $50,000 optional claiming feature at six furlongs when leading contenders Cowboy Stuff and Ruling Star both make their second starts since the fall.

"If they throw a big [comeback] race, you worry about a bounce," said Cole Norman, who trains Ruling Star. "But if one might have needed the race, he could move forward. It's 50-50."

Norman said in the case of Ruling Star, a sloppy track worked against him in his Feb. 9 comeback when he finished second as the favorite in an allowance race. The race was his first since a second-place finish in the Nov. 2 Excalibur, a $30,000 race for 3-year-olds at Louisiana Downs.

"I know [jockey] Jamie [Theriot] said he didn't handle the track last time," Norman said.

Norman looks for Ruling Star to move forward Wednesday. Anthony Lovato will ride the colt, and Theriot will be aboard Grey Velvet, another Norman starter in the race. Theriot won with Grey Velvet on Feb. 13.

"It's hard to take a rider off a horse who he just won on," said Norman, who noted that Lovato has won with Ruling Star.

Terry Thompson, who is tied atop the jockey standings with Theriot, will ride Cowboy Stuff, a troubled sixth in his comeback Feb. 5. The race was Cowboy Stuff's first since Sept. 21, and he was forced to steady into the turn behind wire-to-wire winner That That, who is pointing for the $50,000 Hot Springs on March 23.

Trainer Don Von Hemel, who co-owns Cowboy Stuff with Shelly Bates, gave the colt four months off to regroup from his strong 3-year-old season, when he went 6 for 10 and won $264,820.

Among his wins were a six-furlong allowance race at Oaklawn; three statebred stakes at Prairie Meadows; and the $100,000 Round Table at Arlington, in which he defeated Pass Rush.

For his second start back, Cowboy Stuff worked a bullet five furlongs in 1:00.60 on Feb. 16.

A third horse in the six-horse field making his second start back is Twining Dream. He won his comeback race Jan. 31. As an off-the-pace runner, he would benefit if Cowboy Stuff and Ruling Star, who both have speed, were to duel early.

Jon Court has the mount for trainer Hal Wiggins.

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