08/02/2011 3:31PM

Saratoga: Rule has the speed to control

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rule has not won since capturing the Grade 3 Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs nearly 18 months ago.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Rule, who has run in eight straight graded stakes, including two Grade 1 races dating back to the end of his 2-year-old season, will seemingly be getting a little class relief when trainer Todd Pletcher drops him into Thursday’s $75,000 Birdstone at Saratoga. But the 1 1/8-mile overnight stakes has not come up an easy spot, in part because of its positioning on the calendar, which makes the race a potential stepping-stone to the Grade 1 Woodward on Sept. 3.

Rule finished third in his two Grade 1 appearances, the 2010 Florida Derby and the 2011 Donn Handicap, both those starts coming at Gulfstream Park. In his most recent outing, Rule finished third after vying for command throughout in the Grade 3 Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park. He has not won since capturing Tampa Bay Downs’ Grade 3 Sam Davis nearly 18 months ago.

“Right now we have no specific plans for him,” said Pletcher when asked if he was possibly looking ahead to the Woodward with Rule. “At the moment we just want to get him back in the winner’s circle.”

Rule will not only hold a class edge over his field in the Birdstone, but he also figures to benefit from being the controlling speed in the race. Rule had his best success earlier in his career when he was able to get to the front and set the pace. That tactic produced each of his four career wins including the Sam Davis and Grade 3 Delta Jackpot.

“He ran hard from a tough spot along the inside in his last start and was under the gun throughout,” said Pletcher. “But the pace scenario in this race looks favorable for him. We might have over-thought things a little bit and had the rider take too much hold of him a few times, when it appears he’s best suited to just going ahead and letting him run his race.”

Like Rule, Equestrio also has Grade 1 experience, having finished ninth while beaten less than seven lengths despite racing very wide turning home in the Stephen Foster. Equestrio, whose most notable victory came over stablemate Dialed In under allowance conditions this winter at Gulfstream, also finished third, beaten just a head by First Dude, in Churchill Downs’ Grade 3 Alysheba during the spring.

Equestrio is one of two horses trainer Nick Zito will send out in the Birdstone, along with the multiple stakes-placed The Dark Knight.

Trainer Ken McPeek is high on Gautier, who would have run in Saturday’s Grade 1 Whitney had the Birdstone failed to fill. Gautier opened his career with six straight one-sided victories in Peru before joining McPeek’s stable earlier this year and launching his U.S. campaign with a third-place finish in Indiana Downs’ Golden Bear.

“He had a wide trip over a speed-favoring track surface in his first start in this country, and I think people will find he’s going to be very special,” said McPeek. “I chose to start him here instead of the Whitney because the easiest spot produces the easiest win.”

Afleet Again, fourth in the 2010 Travers, is expected to scratch from the Birdstone in lieu of Friday’s John’s Call Stakes on the turf.