02/20/2003 12:00AM

All he needs is a little luck

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Harlan's Holiday, with earnings of almost $2 million and a determined seasonal debut here several weeks ago, is a legitimate favorite for Saturday's $500,000 Donn Handicap at nine furlongs. But favorites have won only two of the past 10 runnings and Harlan's Holiday drew the outside post in a field of 11.

There are times when an outside post has been helpful, but given a choice, most horsemen would go in another direction, for luck is usually involved.

Luck plays a significant role in many aspects of racing. Consider the travail of Hero's Tribute in last month's Hal's Hope Handicap. Hero's Tribute, a challenger in the Donn who merits respect, was blocked on the far turn and for much of the way home. There was a harrowing move through a narrow opening along the rail that enabled him to get fourth money.

"He had a horrible trip," trainer John Ward recalled. "He ran a good race and was in tight and waiting for a break but there was no place to go. When he finally got through, the hole was so narrow that Edgar Prado came back with white paint from the rail across one boot."

With better racing luck Hero's Tribute would have been a lot closer in the Hal's Hope and might have been recognized as a leading contender in the Donn. But then nothing has ever come easy for Hero's Tribute, a 5-year-old son of Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero.

Hero's Tribute was purchased as a yearling for $185,000 by John Oxley, who raced Monarchos to win the Kentucky Derby of 2001. Hero's Tribute showed brilliance at 3, but faded from prominence. Donna Ward, a partner with her husband in their training operation, took Hero's Tribute aside for some focused instruction in enhancing the consistency of his performances. He came to hand last fall, won the Black Tie Affair Handicap at Arlington Park on the Breeders' Cup program, and was closing strongly against the highly regarded Lido Palace in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs when he ran out of ground.

"We drew the number 2 post position for the Donn," Ward noted. "That means Edgar Prado will have to use him early to get position. If the effort isn't too taxing and his trip in the Hal's Hope doesn't linger in his memory, we consider him to have an excellent chance in the Donn."

Ward also trains John Oxley's promising classic prospect Sky Mesa, an outstanding 2-year-old of last season who is undefeated in three starts. He was very impressive in winning Saratoga's Hopeful Stakes and scored again in the fall by four lengths in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. A setback ended his campaign prematurely but Sky Mesa has trained smartly this winter and is probably not too far from his 3-year-old debut.

"He's doing awfully well," Ward said. "We were delighted with his breeze at Gulfstream the other day. He went five-eighths in a minute and two-fifths, the last quarter in 23 and change, and galloped out seven furlongs in 1:28 and the mile in 1:44."

Ward said that Sky Mesa will make only two starts before the Kentucky Derby, and said "that should be enough for a horse who is fit and experienced in racing."

Sky Mesa has trained all winter at Palm Beach Downs, a training center with a deep and tiring surface that is ideal for preparing a horse for the classics.

"He is so intelligent that he understands what we're trying to accomplish," Ward said. "There are many steps that must be taken with an ordinary horses that are not necessary in his preparation. We're on schedule and the outlook is bright."