05/27/2001 11:00PM

O, the thrill of the chase!

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ELMONT, N.Y. - It was riveting, surely one of the best races of the season.

Hero's Tribute, owned by John Oxley, and E Dubai, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, both came to run in Saturday's $200,000 Peter Pan for 3-year-olds at nine furlongs - and did they ever!

Overcast skies and a sloppy track didn't detract a bit from an exercise in courage and determination that will not soon be forgotten.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd as the two principals left the gate in high gear, and another expression of surprise as announcer Tom Durkin intoned the fractions: the quarter in 22.55 seconds, the half-mile in 44.87, the six furlongs in 1:08.59, with the two colts head and head.

E Dubai, favored at 3-5, dropped back a few yards on the turn, the issue apparently decided. But then, to a rising murmur of appreciation from the stands, he picked up his tempo for another challenge and was abreast of Hero's Tribute entering the stretch.

They matched strides to more applause and then Hero's Tribute began to draw away, winning by almost four lengths under Jorge Chavez in 1:47.47. At the finish there was no question who was best, but E Dubai, who gave six pounds to the winner, covered himself with distinction.

As for Hero's Tribute, trainer John Ward has been saying all year that he had at least two good 3-year-olds. Once Monarchos won the Florida Derby, however, while Hero's Tribute finished third in the Louisiana Derby and seventh in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes, it became a non-issue.

"He had blinkers on for the first time Saturday," Ward commented, "and they helped him focus on his job. They helped him get into the race earlier than has been the case and they helped him continue his effort all the way.

"In addition, he wore a Z-bar shoe on his left front where he developed a quarter-crack. Belmont Park has wide, sweeping turns that help to make this shoe particularly effective. It wouldn't have been nearly as helpful at a track with narrower, sharper turns."

Ward said that Monmouth's $1 million Haskell on Aug. 5 is the principal summer goal for Hero's Tribute, and is beginning to zero in on Belmont's Dwyer on July 8 as the best way to get there.

And, don't forget . . .

The Peter Pan was not the only unusually competitive feature of the holiday weekend at Belmont. Sunday's muddy track cut down the size of the field to three in the $100,000 Jaipur Handicap at seven furlongs and caused the race to be switched from grass to dirt. It was thoroughly entertaining, however, thanks to exceptional efforts on the part of Affirmed Success and Texas Glitter.

Affirmed Success, the topweight at 123 pounds and the favorite at 3-5, was making his first start since his third-place finish last Nov. 25 in the Cigar Mile. Texas Glitter, a horse with extreme speed, raced once this season since winning a grass stakes at Hollywood Park on Dec. 22. Like Hero's Tribute and E Dubai, Affirmed Success and Texas Glitter came out running, and hard. The fractions paralleled those in the Peter Pan and they kept grinding away at each other until Affirmed Success prevailed by a length after a rousing stretch duel.

Rick Schosberg did an outstanding job having Affirmed Success ready for such a demanding test after being away from competition for six months. Under his supervision, the 7-year-old gelding by Affirmed has won 12 races and earned $1.5 million. Schosberg's goal for Affirmed Success is the Breeders' Cup Mile on the turf, and the trainer will point him for grass races that will assist in this strategy. The next probable start for him is the Poker Handicap on July 4.