12/29/2006 1:00AM

Now 4, two begin new trail in Hal's Hope


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Strong Contender and Sweetnorthernsaint, two of the top 3-year-olds on the 2006 Kentucky Derby trail, will help get the 2007 Gulfstream Park meeting off to a fast start when they square off Saturday in the Grade 3 Hal's Hope Handicap.

A one-mile race, the Hal's Hope is one of four stakes that will be run during the opening weekend of the Gulfstream meeting, which begins Wednesday. Also on Saturday's card are the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Handicap and the Ft. Lauderdale Stakes on the turf. On Sunday, newly turned 3-year-olds will have their first opportunity in the spotlight in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes.

All four stakes will be worth $100,000.

Strong Contender first stamped himself a potential Kentucky Derby candidate when he won his maiden in impressive fashion at Gulfstream in February. He ultimately skipped the Derby after finishing a distant third in the Grade 1 Blue Grass, but he rebounded to win the Grade 2 Dwyer on July 4 and the Super Derby on Sept. 23 before trainer John T. Ward gave him the rest of the year off.

"He had enough points to get into the Breeders' Cup Classic, but I decided against it to have a good fresh horse for this year," Ward said shortly after Strong Contender worked six furlongs in 1:13.60 under jockey Edgar Prado at Gulfstream on Thursday. "Right now, I've got a three race series planned for him, beginning with the Hal's Hope and continuing with the Donn and Santa Anita handicaps. He's probably going to need a race in the Hal's Hope, but it should set him up nicely for the next two. He won't actually turn 4 until May 15, so he'll really be a 3-year-old going up against older horses in these first three starts this year."

Sweetnorthernsaint went off as the slight favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but finished a troubled seventh. He rebounded in his next start, finishing second behind Bernardini in the Preakness. Trainer Michael Trombetta gave him a breather following the Preakness, but Sweetnorthernsaint returned with two easy victories in October and November to close out his 3-year-old campaign. A Florida-bred, Sweetnorthernsaint is eligible for the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 27.

The Mr. Prospector drew only 15 nominations, topped by Kelly's Landing, who finished an unlucky 10th in the BC Sprint, and Weigelia, who comes off a 4 1/2-length victory over Paradise Dancer in the Grade 3 Kenny Noe Jr. Handicap at Calder. Slambammy, Yes Yes Yes, and Mach Ride are among the other notables eligible for the race.

Saint Stephen, Ballast, and Interpatation are among the top names nominated for the 1 1/16-mile Ft. Lauderdale.

* Straight Faced, Buffalo Man, and Clifton Park are several of the leading candidates eligible for the Spectacular Bid on Jan. 7.