12/12/2001 1:00AM

Touch Tone on the mend in Texas


NEW ORLEANS - Touch Tone, the outstanding 3-year-old who launched his career with a huge training race win at Fair Grounds last winter, is recuperating from surgery at Squaw Creek Farm in Weatherford, Texas, and is about a month away from a resumption of training.

Trainer Ronnie Werner, saddling training-race horses at Fair Grounds on Wednesday, said he had just returned from a visit to Squaw Creek. "He's looking good," said Werner.

Werner kept Touch Tone close to his side throughout the summer as the colt shipped around the East and Midwest to run in stakes races. Touch Tone won the Iowa Derby by more than seven lengths, was beaten a half-length by Point Given when second in the Grade 1 Haskell, and ended his campaign with a third-place finish in the Pennsylvania Derby.

But in October, Touch Tone underwent surgery to remove bone chips in all four of his legs, a condition that must have caused him pain during his races. Said Werner, "He's a game son of a gun, isn't he?"

Dr. Larry Bramlage, the noted surgeon who performed the operation, offered a positive prognosis for Touch Tone's recovery. "But you always worry that surgery will cheapen them," Werner said. "I just hope we can get him back something close to 100 percent."

If things go well, Touch Tone will join Werner's string later this meet.

Learned undergoes ankle surgery

Learned, the undefeated 3-year-old who was to have run in the Woodchopper Handicap here Dec. 22, suffered a condylar fracture to his right front ankle during a Dec. 9 workout here and will be out of action this winter. Trainer Bobby Barnett said Learned underwent surgery to repair the injury Wednesday morning, and that the colt was expected to make a full recovery.

"It was a clean break, and they said the surgery went well," Barnett said.

Learned is by the lower-level sire, Discovery, and out of an 18-year-old broodmare who had never produced a flat-race starter before Learned.

Humble origins or not, Learned showed immense talent this fall in Kentucky, winning three races at three tracks by a combined 15 1/2 lengths, and he was especially impressive winning a Nov. 23 Churchill allowance by almost five lengths.

Barnett said Learned appeared to come back from a five-furlong work here Sunday in good shape, but while being cooled out about a half-hour after his work, the colt came up lame. Barnett hopes to have Learned back at the races sometime next year.

Northcote Road still going strong

It's winter in New Orleans, and the first turf route stakes for older horses is only a few weeks away, so Northcote Road must be gearing up for his annual assault on the Fair Grounds grass course. * worked a strong five furlongs in 1:01.20 here on Dec. 6, and trainer Blackie Huffman said Northcote Road is being pointed to the Jan. 5 Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap.

Northcote Road's love affair with Fair Grounds began in 1997, the first year he raced on the turf course here. He won his first Fair Grounds grass race and has never run poorly on this course - in 11 starts, Northcote Road has won six times and finished second in three other starts.

One of the seconds came last season in the $700,000 Explosive Bid Handicap, when Northcote Opened up a lead in the final furlong, only to be caught yards from the wire by Tijiyr.

Huffman, who has expertly managed Northcote Road through a 47-race career, said he sees no signs that the horse is slowing down. "He's a pretty solid old horse," he said. And, as usual, Northcote Road perked up as soon as he got into town. "He loves everything about it here," said Huffman.

Training race report

It was a busy Wednesday morning at Fair Grounds, with five training races - featuring 43 horses - run over a fast track that produced slowish times during training hours, and continued to do so during schooling races.

Several horses ran well, perhaps most notably three winners - Belong to Lassie, Clergy, and Guernica. The Neil Howard-trained Belong to Lassie won the first training race, rallying from behind horses while wide, and she was not asked for her best while clocking 1:03.60 for five furlongs.

The Frank Brothers-trained colt Clergy, a son of Pulpit, was very impressive winning the second race. Brothers said the colt was somewhat atypical for a Pulpit, whose offspring tend to excitability, but Clergy showed fairly good speed and won rather easily in 1:02.40.

Guernica, an El Prado colt, was under stout restraint for much of the fifth training race, which he won when his rider gave a shake of the reins inside the final furlong, which prompted Guernica to spurt to the front.

- Jockey Robby Albarado won't be in action this week. He has traveled to Hong Kong to ride Morluc in the Hong Kong Sprint.


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