01/05/2006 12:00AM

Niigon needs his best to take Hal's Hope


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Eric Coatrieux would be the first to admit that his Sovereign Award winner Niigon doesn't always bring his "A" game to the races. But if he does, the Canadian-bred is certainly talented enough to win Saturday's $100,000 at Gulfstream Park.

Niigon was voted Canada's top 3-year-old in 2004 after winning the prestigious Queen's Plate and finishing second in both the Plate Trial and Prince of Wales Stakes. But he was erratic for most of the early stages of the 2005 campaign before coming on strongly at the end of the season with a victory and a pair of second-place finishes behind nemesis Cryptograph in the Group 3 Durham Cup and Woodbine Slots Cup handicaps.

"He's always been a little inconsistent," said Coatrieux, who trains the homebred Niigon for the Chiefswood Stable. "Sometimes he doesn't run his best race, but he finished up the year well, and he's been training extremely well since we brought him down to Florida. And the good news is Cryptograph isn't in the field."

Niigon will carry high weight of 117 pounds in the Grade 3 Hal's Hope, conceding from two to five pounds in an evenly matched group of nine older horses. Cornelio Velasquez will be aboard Niigon for the first time on Saturday.

If Niigon doesn't run his best, any of a number of rivals could grab the top prize.

Philanthropist enters the 1 1/8-mile Hal's Hope on a three-race win streak, which includes a neck decision against West Virginia in Aqueduct's Grade 3 Queens County Handicap. A son of Kris S., Philanthropist has yet to finish worse than second in five starts since being equipped with blinkers by trainer Shug McGaughey this summer at Saratoga.

Seek Gold is coming off a second-place finish behind stablemate Andromeda's Hero in Calder's Grade 3 Fred Hooper Handicap but is winless since capturing a third-level allowance race at Saratoga in the summer of 2004.

On Thin Ice was also narrowly beaten in his 2005 finale, losing by a half-length to Alumni Hall after a long stretch duel in Keeneland's Grade 3 Fayette Stakes.

Network, a versatile gelding, returned to the main track following his victory on the turf in Monmouth Park's Lamplighter Handicap and finished fourth in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park and third in the Grade 3 Pegasus at The Meadowlands.

Rounding out the field are Wiggins, the winner of Hawthorne's restricted High Alexander Handicap, Dazzling Dr. Cevin, Ricardo A, and Itsawonderfulife.