01/03/2009 1:00AM

Hal's Hope merely a tune-up


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It's always nice to start off the new year winning a Grade 3 race. But for the majority of the 14 horses entered in Saturday's $100,000 Hal's Hope at Gulfstream Park, the event is a stepping-stone to potentially more lucrative paydays later this month in either the Sunshine Millions Classic or Grade 1 Donn Handicap.

Among those using the one mile Hal's Hope as a prep for the $1 million Sunshine Classic three weeks down the road is Delightful Kiss, who will likely be a slight favorite over Bribon off his second-place finish behind multiple Grade 1 winner Einstein in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in his last start. The Clark closed out another big year for Delightful Kiss, who also registered a pair of Grade 3 victories and finished fourth while beaten only two lengths in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Marathon.

"He's training great and should make a good account of himself on Saturday, but our primarily goal is the Sunshine Millions," said Pete Anderson, who trains the homebred Delightful Kiss for the Hobeau Farm. "I'm not happy about having to run in a 14-horse field where there is so much potential for a traffic jam. I just hope they go humming up front. But I'll be content if he just turns in another good performance and gets the kinks out for the Sunshine Millions."

Delightful Kiss will share high weight of 122 pounds under the allowance conditions of the Hal's Hope along with Anak Nakal and It's a Bird.

Bribon turned into a top miler for trainer Robert Ribaudo as a 5-year-old in 2008. Bribon earned a 118 Beyer Speed Figure, the second highest in dirt races up to a mile in North America last year, winning a high-priced optional claiming race at Belmont in June. He also trounced similar competition going the same distance on Nov. 7 prior to his third-place finish in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

Bribon, who rallied from more than a dozen lengths off the lead in the Cigar Mile, must prove he's capable of performing better than he did here last winter when he went 0 for 3 over the Gulfstream strip.

Anak Nakal won the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, finished second in the Meadowlands Cup, and third in the Belmont, but was far behind Delightful Kiss when a badly beaten seventh closing out his 3-year-old campaign in the Clark.

It's a Bird ran off three consecutive wins within a seven-week span last summer and fall at Calder that included a hard-fought head decision over Gottcha Gold in the Grade 3 Spend a Buck Handicap.

The once beaten, lightly raced Now a Victor figures to force the early pace along with the multiple stakes winner Finallymadeit.

Now a Victor has captured 4 of 5 career starts with his lone setback a neck defeat in the Grade 3 Pegasus in October 2007. He returned from a one-year layoff to register a career-best 102 Beyer wiring a field of high- priced optional claiming rivals going 6 1/2 furlongs at Aqueduct on Nov. 27.