Updated on 09/17/2011 10:43AM

Hero's Tribute inherits favorite's role

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The absence of Harlan's Holiday makes Hero's Tribute (above) the one to beat in the Hal's Hope.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - John Ward was in Kentucky when he heard that Harlan's Holiday, the 120-pound highweight and expected favorite for Saturday's $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap, was not among the entries when the race was drawn at Gulfstream Park on Thursday. The turn of events leaves the Ward-trained Hero's Tribute as the horse to beat in the inaugural edition of the Grade 3 race.

The Hal's Hope, formerly the Creme Fraiche Handicap, was renamed in honor of the upset winner of the 2000 Florida Derby and 2002 Gulfstream Park Handicap, both Grade 1 stakes. He died last summer due to complications from an intestinal disorder. Eight horses were entered in the 1 1/16-mile Hal's Hope, including high-weighted Hail the Chief, who will carry 116 pounds, one more than Hero's Tribute.

Hero's Tribute won only 2 of 7 starts in 2002 but closed out the campaign in high style. He defeated Balto Star by two lengths in Arlington Park's Black Tie Affair Handicap and then finished third, beaten one length by Lido Palace, in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

"The Hal's Hope looked like a pretty good spot to open the season," said Ward, who trains Hero's Tribute for his main client, John Oxley. "He's been a very consistent horse with Edgar [Prado] and if he can come back to his last two races at Arlington and Churchill Downs I'll be very happy."

Ward will be turning Hero's Tribute back from a steady diet of nine-furlong races in the Hal's Hope but is not concerned about the shorter distance.

"He stalks just a touch, and Edgar knows him really well so the change in distance doesn't figure to be a problem," said Ward. "I think we should see a good performance from him on Saturday."

Trainer Niall O'Callaghan is not sure if Hail the Chief is quite ready for a top performance with only one start under his belt since being sidelined by a twisted ankle following his easy victory in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap on May 18. Hail the Chief finished ninth, 8 3/4 lengths behind Hero's Tribute, in the Clark on Nov. 29.

"I'd have rather started him back in an allowance race but I couldn't get one to fill and was forced to run him in the Clark," said O'Callaghan. "And while I feel he's improved a good deal since then I'd probably rather run him somewhere else, like an allowance race, than the Hal's Hope. It took him three starts to come back to his best form last winter and I'm wondering if that could be the case again this year."

Joining Hero's Tribute and Hail the Chief in a very contentious race are Speed Hunter, Windsor Castle, Saint Verre, Dream Run, and the Nick Zito duo of American Style and Najran.

Dream Run, who won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap at seven furlongs here last winter, will try two turns for the first time.

"We want to find out if he'll stretch out," said trainer Paul McGee. "If not we can always shorten back up for the sprint stakes here later in the meet."

With American Style entered in an allowance race on Friday, Najran is expected to represent the Zito barn in the Hal's Hope. Najran had his four-race winning streak snapped when he finished fifth after contesting the early pace in the Clark.

Harlan's Holiday not quite ready

Trainer Todd Pletcher said he decided to pass the Hal's Hope with Harlan's Holiday for several reasons.

"I thought the race came up pretty tough," said Pletcher. "He missed one work, and while his last work was okay it wasn't spectacular. I just think he needs a little more time."

Pletcher said he is considering several options for Harlan's Holiday, including the Strub at Santa Anita Feb. 1 or the Donn Handicap here on Feb. 22.

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