01/11/2013 1:36PM

Gulfstream Park: Csaba in peak form entering Hal's Hope

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Courtney Heeney
Csaba extended his stakes win streak to three in the Harlan's Holiday last month, and looks for No. 4 on Sunday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Trainer Mark Casse likely summed up the feelings of every trainer participating in Sunday’s $100,000 Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream Park when he said, “I’d feel pretty darn good if Csaba wasn’t in there.”

The red-hot Csaba will likely be favored to post his fourth straight stakes victory in the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope, a race he and many others in the field are hoping to use as a stepping-stone to the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 9.

Csaba began his current skein after returning to south Florida off a seventh-place finish in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 22. Csaba, a son of Kitten’s Joy who actually excels more on dirt than turf, won Calder’s Tropical Park Derby by 14 lengths and the Grade 3 Fred Hooper Handicap by seven lengths before vanning across town to defeat the Casse-trained Delegation by nearly four lengths in the Harlan’s Holiday, his 2012 finale here on Dec. 16.

“He seems to be at his best right now and he also seems to really like this racetrack,” said Phil Gleaves, who trains Csaba for owners Bruce Hollander and Gary Shapoff. “I love the turn-back to a mile as well. If all goes well Sunday, the Donn will be next on our radar.”

Casse will double team Csaba in the Hal’s Hope with Delegation and Pool Play, who was supplemented to the race at a cost of $5,000.

Delegation tracked the pace from the outset in the Harlan’s Holiday before proving no match for Csaba through the stretch while making his first start since finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

“I find Gulfstream to be a very difficult track to run on if you haven’t been racing somewhere like Belmont, Aqueduct or Calder, where the surfaces are a little deeper,” said Casse. “To be honest, [Delegation] was exhausted after that last race. He was much more tired than after finishing the Breeders’ Cup. Listen, Csaba is very tough, we may just have been second best, but I think my horse is going to get a whole lot out of that last race.”

Owned by Bill Farish, Pool Play will be making his first start since finishing eighth behind Fort Larned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Pool Play, winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap in his 2011 finale, earned his way into the Breeders’ Cup with a half-length victory over Cease in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup.

“I talked it over with Bill and we decided there was just nowhere else to run him right now,” said Casse when asked the reasoning behind posting the supplemental fee for Pool Play. “A mile is really too short for him, but a good performance could put him in the Donn.”

Csaba and Delegation will likely find themselves stalking the early pace in the Hal’s Hope, with Associate, Scatman, and Pants On Fire in the lineup.

Associate has not started since finishing third in the Grade 3, seven-furlong Bold Ruler Handicap at Belmont Park on Oct. 27. He defeated mid-level optional claiming competition going a one-turn mile at Belmont during the fall.

Scatman, a son of Scat Daddy, was hard-used on the front end before fading to finish fifth as the 8-5 choice in the Harlan’s Holiday, putting an end to a modest two-race winning streak.

Pants On Fire lost all chance even before the gates opened for the Delta Mile after being fractious. He raced far back and finishing a non-threatening sixth as the 3-5 favorite while making his first start since winning Monmouth Park’s Skip Away nearly six months earlier. Pants On Fire won his only start locally returning from an even longer layoff here last winter.

Soldat returns to the scene of his finest hour, a two-length victory in the 2011 Fountain of Youth. Soldat will try dirt for the first time since finishing 11th later that spring in the Kentucky Derby.

The remainder of the field is comprised of Cool Blue Red Hot, making his first start since finishing third in the 2012 Hal’s Hope, Swagger Jack, and Good Morning Diva.