01/10/2015 4:32PM

Lea looks as good as ever winning comeback in Hal's Hope

Barbara D. Livingston
Lea (1), making his first start in 11 months, rallies under Joel Rosario to overtake Confrontation and Prayer for Relief in the Hal's Hope.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -   Lea is back!

That was the overwhelming reaction immediately after Lea overcame an 11-month layoff and an eventful trip to successfully defend his title in Saturday’s $150,000 Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream Park.

The Grade 3 Hal’s Hope was Lea’s first start since his record-setting performance winning the Grade 1 Donn Handicap here 11 months ago. Lea contracted a virus about a month after the race and trainer Bill Mott was never able to get him right enough to run again in 2014.

Lea broke from the rail under jockey Joel Rosario and settled in within easy striking distance behind the modest pace set by Golden Lad and pressed by Valid. Lea had to steady along when blocked behind the bunched-up field approaching the stretch and again trying to split rivals in early stretch. Rosario tipped Lea to the outside at that point, after which the even-money favorite surged down the center of the strip to wear down the leaders inside the sixteenth pole.

Confrontation, stretching out to a mile for the first time, raced wide, engaged for command nearing the furlong grounds, continued gamely but could not resist the winner while outgaming Prayer for Relief to finish second. Valid gradually weakened to finish fourth followed by the tiring Golden Lad.

Lea, a 6-year-old homebred son of First Samurai, completed the distance in 1:35.46 over a fast track and paid $4.

“On this track, I think it was an exceptional race,” said Mott. “Usually the speed horses, turning for home, get loose from you. He’s obviously a good horse. He was pretty fit coming in, but he’d still been off a year. There’s nothing like having a race.  You can train one all day long, and you’ve got to give a lot of credit to the horse to be able to come off that kind of layoff and get the job done.”

Mott said he was concerned when Lea was forced to take up in traffic nearing the stretch.

“I thought at that point he could get beat,” Mott said. “I can see he had plenty of horse and he was waiting, waiting, waiting, and finally he was able to tip out late. And when you tip out here, you only have three-sixteenths of a mile to go. It’s not like you’ve got a quarter-mile stretch.”

If all goes well, Lea will return to defend his title in the Donn on Feb. 7.