02/03/2011 3:04PM

Zito has standout pair for Donn


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The King and the Queen of the handicap division, Blame and Zenyatta, are gone. On Saturday, trainer Nick Zito is hoping a couple of horses owned by a prince and a sheikh will prove worthy of taking over their throne.

Gulfstream Park’s $500,000 Donn Handicap is the first major race for older horses in the United States this year, and Zito will send out two of the top contenders: Fly Down, owned by Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, along with Morning Line, who is co-owned by Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed al Maktoum’s Zabeel Racing International in partnership with the Thoroughbred Racing Legends Stable.

Fly Down will shoulder high weight of 122 pounds in the Grade 1 Donn, which shares top billing on Saturday’s card with the Grade 1, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap. The 11-race program also includes the $150,000 Suwannee River, a Grade 3 race for older fillies and mares on the grass.

The stretch-running Fly Down has not started since finishing third behind Blame and Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, closing the curtain on a successful but frustrating season that also saw him post a dominating victory in the Grade 2 Dwyer, finish a troubled second in the Belmont Stakes, and lose a heartbreaker at the hands of Afleet Express in the Travers.

“He ran great off the bench when he beat First Dude here last winter, and he’s doing fantastic coming up to this race,” said Zito.

Morning Line has improved with experience, outgaming First Dude to win the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby before dropping a tough head decision to Dakota Phone in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile to close out his 3-year-old campaign. Morning Line began his 2011 season finishing third after setting a pressured pace as the even-money favorite in the one-mile Hal’s Hope, a Grade 3, on Jan. 8.

The sheikh purchased an undisclosed percentage of Morning Line from the Thoroughbred Legend’s Stable earlier this week. “The Hal’s Hope didn’t go anywhere like we expected,” said Zito. “And it’s turned out to be a very good race, with a couple of horses having already come back to win out of there. I hate to run both my horses against each other, but fortunately their styles compliment one another, and where else is there to go? There aren’t many opportunities around and it is a Grade 1 so we can’t pass it up.”

Rule also exits the Hal’s Hope, having rallied to be second despite early trouble in his first start since finishing third after disputing a fast pace as the 9-5 choice in the Grade 1 Florida Derby more than nine months earlier. Rule won the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot at 2 and Tampa Bay Downs’ Grade 3 Sam F. Davis early at 3.

Trainer Todd Pletcher opted to pass the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Rule after the homebred did not train up to the big event as well as Pletcher would have liked. His return was further delayed when a race he was pointing for this fall in Kentucky failed to fill.

“I guess he’s still got to prove he can get a mile and one eighth,” said Pletcher, who trains Rule for WinStar Farm. “I thought he ran well in the Florida Derby despite being forced to press some fast fractions, and with a better pace scenario I think he can handle it. Hopefully he’ll be in a good stalking position on Saturday.”

The nine-horse Donn field also includes I Want Revenge, Hear Ye Hear Ye, Giant Oak, Eldaafer, Square Eddie, and Ron the Greek.

Square Eddie has shipped in from California off an easy second-level allowance win while making his first start in over a year. The victory was his first since capturing the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at 2.

I Want Revenge is also on the comeback trail, having made two starts since winning the 2009 Wood Memorial but none since his third-place finish in the Grade 3 Iselin on Aug. 21.

Eldaafer is the only Breeders’ Cup winner in the field, having captured the roughly run Marathon by nearly two lengths over Grade 1 winner Prince Will I Am.

Giant Oak earned his most important victory via the disqualification of Successful Dan in Churchill Downs’ Grade 1 Clark Handicap in November.