BALTIMORE, MAY 26 -- Kenny Cox stood in the mist this afternoon at Pimlico, looked at his muddy shoes and said, "This is the kind of day we've been waiting for."

He had hoped for lousy weather before today's Never Bend Handicap, and Flaming Emperor showed why. The durable 4-year-old made the most of a well-conceived trip to win the $54,550 race with surprising ease over long shot Loyal Pal.

In his previous try on a sloppy track, Flaming Emperor had run away with the Native Dancer Handicap at big odds. Cox knew his stable star relished murky going, but the horse found nothing but reasonably dry surfaces in five subsequent starts.

"The last three or four times we ran, the forecast was calling for rain," said Cox, at 22 one of Maryland's younger trainers. "But each time it just teased me; it cleared up, and the track was pretty much fast by the race. I was afraid the same thing was going to happen today."

Pimlico's surface was sloppy for the first race today and didn't get any drier. Cox got the desired condition, and furthered his cause by deft planning with jockey Jo Jo Ladner.

The rain-induced withdrawals of Silano and Due North left six horses in the Never Bend, only one of whom -- Jove By Jove -- was capable of running early with Flaming Emperor. Cox and Ladner decided not to engage in a cut-throat run for the lead, and Ladner executed that plan with aplomb.

Flaming Emperor broke quickly from post 4, but Ladner eased him back slightly once he saw Jove By Jove speeding on the rail. "There was no sense in killing each other," Ladner said. "I figured I could relax my horse and still keep the pressure on Jove By Jove."

Jove By Jove had a 1 1/2-length lead on Flaming Emperor very early, but that began to dwindle slowly until the two were side by side early into the far turn. At that point, Master Speaker, the highweighted 4-to-5 favorite, was within two lengths with Loyal Pal to his left and the well-backed Jet Stream to his right.

Ladner could sense Flaming Emperor's urge to surge, and he gave in to his mount. "Sometimes, if you sit on him when he starts to run, he kind of hangs a little," Ladner said. "I said, 'I'll let him go and open up, and make the others come get him.' "

Flaming Emperor's 1 1/2-length lead at the head of the stretch came with little prodding from Ladner. Even as Master Speaker and Jet Stream tried in vain to catch up in midstretch, Ladner whipped only sparingly with the left hand. Flaming Emperor hit the wire a three-length winner over Loyal Pal, who pushed a neck past Jet Stream for second at odds of 16-1.

Master Speaker, who carried 10 pounds more than Flaming Emperor, finished fourth and spoiled Mike Luzzi's first ride in a stakes race for his grandfather, trainer Buddy Raines.

Flaming Emperor went the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 3/5 for his seventh victory in 39 starts. The Maryland-bred earned $32,930 for Hideaway Farm owner Buddy Cox, the trainer's father.

Flaming Emperor paid $13.60 as third choice and was Ladner's second winner in two mounts. He steered Naval Engagement through on the rail in the seventh race.