03/27/2004 12:00AM

Speightstown scores off layoff

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Most horses need to race themselves into shape. A rare few are at their best when fresh. Among them is Speightstown, who returned from a 10-month layoff to score a 4 1/2-length victory over Pretty Wild in Saturday's $100,000 Artax Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

Speightstown came into the seven-furlong Artax idle since Belmont's Jaipur Handicap on May 26. But a 10-month hiatus is nothing for Speightstown, who came back from a 21-month layoff and two ankle surgeries to defeat then reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner Volponi last May in New York. Speightstown also was sidelined five months before winning his maiden by 6 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream in 2001.

Speightstown bobbled briefly at the break, then was challenged for the lead by Pretty Wild, with the pair dueling through fractions of 22.39 and 44.93 seconds. Speightstown shook off his early pursuer entering the stretch, then increased his advantage while kept under steady pressure from Eibar Coa through the final furlong.

Pretty Wild was no match for the winner, but held on well to finish second, a nose in front of Wacky for Love.

Speightstown paid $8.20 as the tepid favorite in a scratched-reduced field of nine. His time was 1:22.03.

Gygistar, the 117-pound highweight, was scratched by trainer Mark Hennig after drawing post position 1.

Speightstown is owned by Laura and Eugene Melnyk. A son of Gone West, Speightstown is trained by Todd Pletcher, who was in Dubai on Saturday, where he saddled Alke to a second-place finish in the $2 million Golden Shaheen.

"We broke well, but I was really surprised when he took off the way he did in the stretch," said Coa, who won four races on the card.