HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - After being away from the races for nearly 10 months, Rule returned to the races on January 8 with renewed enthusiasm, finishing a solid second behind impressive winner Soaring Empire in the Hal’s Hope (G3) at Gulfstream Park.

The 4-year-old son of Roman Ruler, who was turned out last spring when Todd Pletcher found something lacking in his training, seems poised to become the racehorse everyone expected him to be at Gulfstream Park last winter.

“We were pleased with his comeback race in the Hal’s Hope. We knew that we were in a tough spot coming off an extended layoff, but he ran very well,” said Pletcher the other day at Gulfstream’s Palm Meadows training center. “Hopefully, that race is going to move him forward for the big one.”

Saturday’s $500,000 Donn Handicap is definitely a big step for Rule in restoring his stature among the Thoroughbred elite. Also entered in the Grade 1 handicap are the Nick Zito-trained duo of Fly Down and Morning Line, California shipper Square Eddie, Clark Handicap winner Giant Oak and Breeders’ Cup Marathon victor Eldaafer.

“The horse is training super. I think he’s training better now than he has at any point in his career,” Pletcher said. “He didn’t really have anything specifically wrong with him when we stopped on him. It just seemed like he tailed off a little bit.”

Rule looked like his old self in the Hal’s Hope, despite dropping a little farther off the early pace that had been his custom earlier in his career. The WinStar Farm’s homebred colt closed from next to last in the six-horse field to finish 1-1/2 lengths behind the going-away winner, Soaring Empire.

“He didn’t break real well; he just kind of had a stutter-step start, and it left him behind some horses,” Pletcher said. “We anticipated a little more pace that we actually got, but I think all-in-all, for the purposes of setting him up for the Donn, it probably worked out well.”

Rule will make his second start at 1-1/8-miles in the Donn, having finished third in the Florida Derby in what turned out to be his 2010 finale. Favored at 9-5 while riding a four-race win streak, Rule pressed a hot early pace and opened a two-length lead in the stretch before weakening late, 1-1/4 lengths behind winner Ice Box.

“He ran a mile-and-an-eighth in the Florida Derby last year and ran very well. He was probably involved in too fast a pace, and I think that was more a reflection on why he didn’t finish out the mile-and-an-eighth,” Pletcher said. “I think he will get a mile-and-an-eighth with proper conditions.”

Pletcher is confident that doing the right thing by Rule last year will hopefully pay dividends this year.

“Right after the Derby he went to WinStar and got several months vacation. He started back with some light training there and came to us at Churchill. He was actually ready to run in November, but we couldn’t find a race for him, so he got kind of backed up to the Hal’s Hope,” Pletcher said. “We were more focused on his 2011 campaign, so we were happy to get it underway in the Hal’s Hope and, hopefully, he continues to move forward.”