Morning Line holds off Prayer for Relief to win the Mervyn Leroy Handicap.

Morning Line holds off Prayer for Relief to win the Mervyn Leroy Handicap.

Benoit Photo

Morning Line Stays Focused in Mervyn LeRoy

Reluctant starter leads at each call in Southern California debut for John Shirreffs.

Morning Line  wanted no part of the starting gate at Betfair Hollywood Park, but once he finally acquiesced there was no catching the grade I winner in the $150,000 Mervyn Leroy Handicap (gr. II) May 5 (VIDEO).

Making his initial start in Southern California for trainer John Shirreffs, Morning Line led Prayer for Relief  all the way around the track and held on for a half-length victory. This was the first start for Morning Line since last summer's Whitney Invitational (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course.

He brought to mind his sire, Tiznow , who was sometimes difficult to handle before a race. Morning Line balked about a furlong from the gate with jockey Joe Talamo, who was forced to dismount. Morning Line made his way to the post reluctantly before the jockey was remounted, delaying the start for several minutes.

Allowed to dictate the pace, however, Morning Line proved more troublesome for his eight rivals than he was for the starting gate crew. His victory puts Morning Line among the favorites for this year's Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I).

Talamo said he has experienced Morning Line's antics during morning workouts.

"That's just him," he said. "You have to just be patient with him. It's hard to really whip on him much because he's an old horse and he knows what he's doing. But he's so professional in the race.

"I really didn't think he'd be in front but he was absolutely cruising the first part," Talamo added. "He got right to the lead and put his ears up. It made my job a lot easier. The only hard part was getting him to the gate. Once I got off him (in the post parade), he was a lot better. I ran with him for an eighth of a mile and we both kind of got warmed up. He's a runner."

Sherrifs credited the gate crew for its patient handling of the 5-year-old. He said Morning Line can be tempermental.

"Like all Thoroughbred horses, you just have to find a way to get along with them," he said. "It just threw a new little wrinkle into his training pattern."

Morning Line completed the 1 1/16-mile Mervyn LeRoy in 1:42.42 over the Cushion Track. He carved fractions of :23.57, :47.00, and 1:11.11 as Gladding and Prayer for Relief stalked. Morning Line kicked clear in the stretch for a 1 1/2-length advantage at the furlong mark, then dug in for the drive under left-handed urging from Talamo as Prayer for Relief. ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., gradually cut into the margin before running out of time.

"You can see from his past races that when horses come to him, he really fights," Shirreffs said. "He's a very classy horse. I hope to run in the Californian (June 2) next."

Sent off at generous odds of 5-1, Morning Line registered his first win since the Carter Handicap (gr. I) a little more than a year ago for previous trainer Nick Zito. Bred in Kentucky by Dell Ridge Farm, the 5-year-old is owned by W.S. Farish, Dixiana Stables, and Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable.

Prayer for Relief was second by 3 3/4 lengths over Kettle Corn , who overcame an awkward start to finish third under Alonso Quinonez. Nine-year-old Awesome Gem, the 5-2 favorite, stalked the pace on the outside but failed to respond in the stretch and placed seventh.

Morning Line won the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) as a sophomore and missed by a head winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) that fall at Churchill Downs. Runner-up in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park the following winter prior to his Carter win, he improved his lifetime record to 5-4-1 in 13 starts with earnings of $1,212,300.

Carrying 119 pounds, Morning Line paid $13.20, $7, and $3.80 as the fourth choice. Prayer for Relief, one of three million-dollar earners in the field, returned $8.60 and $5. The exacta was worth $104.20. Synthetic turf specialist Kettle Corn paid $4 to show.

Thirtyfirststreet finished fourth, followed by Gladding, Jaycito, Awesome Gem, and Great Warrior. Honour the Deputy, the original fifth-place finisher, was demoted to ninth for interference at mid-stretch.