12/26/2001 1:00AM

Can 'Halo' catch lightning again in Hooper?

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MIAMI - It's usually news when the reigning champ in a Grade 3 race returns to defend his title. But American Halo will be among the outsiders in Saturday's running of the Fred W. Hooper Handicap, although he beat a field that included multiple Grade 1 winner Sir Bear in the 2000 Hooper.

Of course winning at long odds would be nothing new for American Halo, who was 76-1 when he shocked everybody - including trainer Angel Medina - by winning last year's Hooper.

"When he won the race last year it was probably the biggest surprise of my life," said Medina, who trains American Halo for owner Jose Paparoni.

American Halo went on to prove his triumph in the Hooper was no fluke when he returned with an equally implausible victory over Vision and Verse and Pleasant Breeze two weeks later in Gulfstream's Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap. It would be the last time American Halo would visit the winner's circle until Nov. 12, when he beat allowance horses here going a mile on the turf.

"He's a very good horse who needs weather like today if he's going to do it again in the Hooper," said Medina, referring to the unseasonably cold conditions that prevailed here when entries were drawn for the Hooper on Wednesday. "He couldn't be coming into the race any better. He breezed perfectly the other morning, and he's drawn post position one so I am going to send him right to the lead from the rail. And who knows, maybe he'll surprise everybody again. Remember nobody thought he had a chance to win this race last year either. Including me."

Repeat offenders

American Halo is one of five horses competing in Grand Slam II for the second consecutive season.

Groomstick Stock's, who finished fifth behind American Halo after leading through six furlongs of the 2000 Hooper, will try his luck in the race again this year. Sugar N Spice and Miss Inquisitive, third and fifth in the 2000 Chaposa Springs, are among the 10 fillies and mares entered for this year's edition of the Grade 3 dash while Just Listen is back again for the McKnight.

Coa gets Grand Slam reprieve

Jockey Eibar Coa will ride in all four stakes races on Saturday's Grand Slam II program even though he was handed a seven-day riding suspension by the stewards earlier this week. Coa began serving his days on Tuesday but is allowed to honor all calls in stakes races during his suspension. Coa, who swept both stakes on last Saturday's program, will also ride in both the Tropical Oaks and Tropical Derby on New Years Day. In exchange for riding on Saturday and New Year's Day two additional days will be tacked onto the end of Coa's suspension.

Coa's mounts on Grand Slam II include Lady Dora in the La Prevoyante Handicap, likely favorites Gold Mover in the Chaposa Springs and Best of the Rest in the Fred. W. Hooper Handicap, and Crash Course in the W.L. McKnight Handicap.

The stewards also hit jockey Rene Douglas with a seven-day suspension that he will begin serving on Thursday. Douglas will not ride on the Grand Slam II card.

Good works

Calder president Ken Dunn will present a check for $25,000 on behalf of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to Robin Cleary and Marc Buoniconti in winner's circle ceremonies during Saturday's program.

Cleary, an exercise rider and assistant trainer for her husband Brian Cleary, has been on a personal mission to raise funds and awareness for the Miami Project since left paralyzed by a training accident here in 1996. Last year Mrs. Cleary raised $160,000 for the Miami Project.