07/17/2002 11:00PM

Hero's Tribute tops tough Hanshin

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - You're not walking on firm ground with any of the major players in the Hanshin Cup.

Slider may or may not be a stakes horse. Bonapaw may or may not be more than a sprinter. Binthebest may or may not be able to extend his closing kick another furlong. And Discreet Hero's love of Arlington may or may not be enough to carry him to another win here.

But what Hero's Tribute may or may not be is a very, very good horse, and the dazzling talent he has tossed out at times makes him the horse to beat Saturday at Arlington.

In all, eight were entered in the one mile, Grade 3 Hanshin, which has come together as a much tougher race than its $100,000 purse would suggest. Proper Man, Mercenary, and X Country complete the field.

Hero's Tribute could be on the way to the East Coast for major handicap races. John Ward, who trains Hero's Tribute for John Oxley, already has booked the 4-year-old colt on a Tuesday flight from Kentucky to New York.

But with Hero's Tribute, you never know. A powerful allowance win at Gulfstream Park early in his 3-year-old season made Hero's Tribute into a Kentucky Derby hopeful, but Hero's Tribute ran poorly in the Blue Grass Stakes and skipped the Triple Crown. When he returned, Hero's Tribute won the Grade 2 Peter Pan, beating E Dubai by almost four lengths in a scintillating performance, but he did not win again the rest of the year.

Ward blames the colt's broken development on immaturity and bad feet, neither of which should be a factor in his 4-year-old season.

"He should get better with age," Ward said. "He was always a little leggy, not totally matured. The extra time off we gave him allowed his quarter cracks to grow out."

After a poor seasonal debut at Keeneland, Hero's Tribute put things together June 2 at Churchill, coming between horses - something he would not willingly do last season - to beat a strong field, running seven furlongs in an excellent 1:21.72. Hero's Tribute, who has drawn post 6 and will be ridden for the second straight time by Craig Perret, has logged several works since his win and should be set up for a big race.

Bonapaw also should be tighter than he was July 4, when he tired and finished fourth in the Iowa Sprint. Before that start, Bonapaw had worked only once at a regular racetrack in four months, and Norman Miller, trainer of a one-horse stable, fears his horse was a bit short.

"We didn't have much time to get him ready," said Miller.

Bonapaw hasn't raced beyond a sprint distance in almost two years, but has won at a mile and may prove to be the controlling speed Saturday. "Would you want to go out there and run with him?" Miller asked.

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