07/14/2002 11:00PM

New, improved Hero's Tribute on display in Hanshin

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CHICAGO - He's back, and braver than ever. That, at least, is the fervent hope of owner John Oxley and trainer John Ward, who have waited patiently for Hero's Tribute to develop into the top-class racehorse he has the potential to become.

Hero's Tribute, who ran recent Suburban Handicap winner E Dubai off his feet winning the Grade 2 Peter Pan last summer, is slated to make the first stakes start of his 4-year-old season Saturday at Arlington. He will van late Thursday night from Ward's Kentucky base to run in the $100,000 Hanshin Cup, a Grade 3 handicap at one mile.

Hero's Tribute could validate a strong allowance win June 2 at Churchill, or he could sink back into the mediocrity that marked the end of his 3-year-old campaign. Once a prime hopeful for last year's Kentucky Derby, Hero's Tribute wound up his year with a disappointing fourth in a listed stakes.

Part of the problem was in his feet, which were plagued with quarter cracks, but part of it was in his head. Ward said Hero's Tribute, like his sire, Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero, has not always run to his ability, in part because he has been a timid animal. Put Hero's Tribute in a tight spot last season and he was more likely to wilt than to attack.

Hero's Tribute, Ward said, is bigger and stronger this year after spending the entire winter and much of the spring away from the races. He may be braver, too. In his Churchill win, a little hole opened up for Hero's Tribute coming into the stretch. Before, he would have backed away.

"He hesitated for a second, but then he went right through there," Ward said. "I liked his race. He laid back behind the pace, and he's matured to the point where he doesn't need to be on the lead."

With the quarter cracks no longer holding Hero's Tribute back, Ward hopes that the confidence-building win will move him forward. In the Hanshin, Hero's Tribute stretches out from seven furlongs to a mile. A good showing will land him in major two-turn races on the East Coast.

The Hanshin itself is coming up strong. Besides Hero's Tribute, probable starters include Binthebest, , Chindi, Discreet Hero, Frazee's Folly, Mercenary, Proper Man, Slider, and X Country.

Bet on Sunshine a Hanshin possible

There's still "an outside shot" Bet on Sunshine could run in the Hanshin, trainer Paul McGee said, but Bet on Sunshine is more likely to await the Don Bernhardt Handicap at Ellis Park, a race he won in 1997 and 1999.

The 10-year-old Bet on Sunshine, third second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, has finished fourth in both of his starts this season, but McGee doesn't believe Bet on Sunshine is in decline. "He's still training good," he said.

Bet on Sunshine's last strong effort came in November, when he beat Parade Leader by more than seven lengths while making his first start around two turns. McGee said he plans to try Bet on Sunshine in another route race, perhaps later this summer.

New faces fill second leg of series

There won't be much continuity to this year's Mid-America Triple, Arlington's loosely connected series of 3-year-old turf races.

The series's second leg, the American Derby, comes up Sunday, but three of the first four finishers from the first leg, the Arlington Classic, won't be running. Mr. Mellon, the winner, is being pointed for dirt races, and runner-up Doc Holiday has returned to the West Coast. Of the top Classic finishers, only Seainsky, third at 56-1, comes back Sunday.

There are new shooters, most prominently Inesperado, who won the Cinema Handicap for trainer Bobby Frankel in his only United States start. Also possible for the race are Afleet Buck, Irish import Jazz Beat, Mananan Mclir, Quest Star, Robin Zee, and Scooter Roach.

Saturday's one-day handle soars

The $5,406,306 in total commingled handle Saturday was Arlington's highest total of the year and the fourth-best wagering day since the track reopened in 2000.

The total was more than $2 million greater than handle last July 13, but there were 10 races Saturday and only nine last year.

An attractive program helped boost handle, as Saturday's races averaged 10.1 starters. But Arlington also benefited from greater penetration of its simulcast signal into national markets, especially California. On July 6, betting outlets in California offered only three of Arlington's races, but they took the track's entire card this past Saturday. Californians bet more than $1.08 million on Saturday's races, more than $770,000 more than the week before.