07/29/2001 11:00PM

Haskell a big moment for Hero's Tribute

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Hero's Tribute, second fiddle to Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos in John Ward's barn throughout the Triple Crown season, will have a chance to bring himself up to the level of his stablemate in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Sunday.

John Ward has been serious about Hero's Tribute's chances in the race all along: Ward has pointed him to the Haskell for more than two months, since a smashing victory in the Grade 2 Peter Pan on May 26.

"Normally the Jim Dandy lines up to be a little bit better than the Haskell as a prep for the Travers," said Ward, who trains Hero's Tribute for John Oxley. "But Monmouth is a faster racetrack and more speed favoring. I think that it will set up for him very well, and it's gonna take a big effort from a horse to chase him down."

That big effort will likely come from Point Given. The division leader, Point Given has been resting since his dominant victory in the Belmont Stakes on June 9. Point Given, who also won the Preakness Stakes, was defeated just once this year: in the Kentucky Derby to Monarchos, who is out for the rest of the year with an injury. Does Ward have another upset prepared for Sunday?

"If you're gonna slay a giant," Ward said, "the best is first time out of the cage."

Hero's Tribute won his maiden at Saratoga last summer and eventually won an allowance and finished second in the Grade 3 Iroquois. He opened up his 3-year-old campaign with an impressive allowance victory over a field that included A P Valentine, and he was on the fast track to the Triple Crown. At the time, he was considered to be of the same quality as Monarchos. But Hero's Tribute was plagued by a quarter crack that kept him behind and a problem with his thyroid that resulted in a poor showing in the Blue Grass.

Since the Blue Grass, Hero's Tribute has been a different horse.

He returned to the track in the Peter Pan on May 26 with blinkers on and a bar shoe to protect his quarter crack. The result was a career-best 112 Beyer Speed Figure and a 3 3/4-length score over E Dubai. E Dubai turned the tables in the Grade 2 Dwyer July 8. Hero's Tribute, who had been steadied on the backstretch and never threatened the winner, was third.

"I have great respect for E Dubai," Ward said. "He ran a really big race. We had a little problem with traffic the first eighth of a mile."

Before the Dwyer, Ward said that he was using the race as a prep for the Haskell, just like he used the Wood, won by Congaree, as a Kentucky Derby prep for Monarchos. In the Dwyer, Hero's Tribute did not wear a bar shoe. For the Haskell, he will be equipped with a specially designed full shoe to keep pressure off the area where the quarter crack was. Hero's Tribute will ship in from his Saratoga base Friday.

The Dwyer and Peter Pan both came up sloppy, and if it rains Sunday, Hero's Tribute's chances will improve. The forecast for the weekend does not call for rain. "If the track comes up muddy, it wouldn't bother me," said Ward.

Because Hero's Tribute did not participate in the Triple Crown, Ward will have a fresh horse heading into the latter portion of the summer and fall. Point Given has been through the grueling tests of the Triple Crown. The opportunity to unseat the champion may be best in the Haskell, which will now carry a $1.5 million purse with the addition of Point Given to the field.

"We're not going to play cat and mouse with Point Given," Ward said. "We're not going to wait for him to get rolling. Hero's Tribute can set honest fractions continually. Point Given will have to get into the game early. For $1.5 million it's worth a gamble.

"This is his big race to step up," he added. "We've been planning this for a long time. All indicators have been pointing to a big performance."