05/29/2003 12:00AM

Snow Dance leads Ward's stakes crew


ELMONT, N.Y. - An eight-horse string of John Ward-trained horses - including the Grade 1 winner Sky Mesa - arrived at Belmont Park from Keeneland Thursday morning.

Also on the van that arrived shortly after 6 a.m. were graded stakes winners Hero's Tribute, Forest Secrets, and Snow Dance. The latter is entered in Saturday's Grade 2, $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap here at 1 3/8 miles on turf. Donna Ward, John's wife and assistant, will oversee the New York string.

Snow Dance, a daughter of Forest Wildcat, has not won since taking the Grade 3 Suwannee River Handicap at Gulfstream Park in March 2002. In seven starts since, she has two seconds and three third-place finishes. Snow Dance is coming off a third-place finish behind Sea of Showers in the Grade 3 Jenny Wiley Handicap at Keeneland in April.

This will be Snow Dance's first attempt beyond 1 3/16 miles, and her connections are hopeful she can get the distance.

"That's something my husband decided on so we'll see,'' Donna Ward said. "She has good tactical speed. She ought to be okay.''

Early in her career, Snow Dance would run on or near the lead. In her last two starts, both third-place finishes in stakes races, Snow Dance came from off the pace.

"I think she can do either to be honest with you,'' Ward said. "In the beginning she wanted to be near the front, now it's manageable speed.''

Meanwhile, it is expected that Sky Mesa will make his 3-year-old debut during this meet. Sky Mesa was forced off the Triple Crown trail with a foot problem. He hasn't raced since winning the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity last October. He injured his ankle and was scratched two days before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"We'll let him get acclimated. He's never been here before,'' Ward said. "When he's ready, I think there'll be a race for him. I think a mile would be the best way to get started.''

Sky Mesa is nominated to next Saturday's Riva Ridge Stakes, but the Wards have decided to skip that race.

"It's too hard to dump him in there after we waited all this time,'' Ward said. "You can't force it.''

Ward said Hero's Tribute, who won the Gulfstream Park Handicap and most recently finished eighth in the Pimlico Special May 16, might be pointed to the Suburban Handicap July 5.

Final Round fires Acorn bullet

Final Round, winner of the Grade 3 La Troienne at Churchill Downs May 1, drilled four furlongs in 47.03 seconds Thursday over a fast Belmont training track. The move was the fastest of 50 at the distance.

Final Round is being pointed to the Grade 1, $250,000 Acorn Stakes here June 6.

"She's really, really doing well,'' trainer Rusty Arnold said. "It's a good opportunity for me to see if we belong. She's got the pressure off having won a graded stakes. If I'm not good enough, I can go in a different direction.''

Arnold will certainly find out if Final Round belongs in the upper echelon of the 3-year-old filly division because the Acorn is shaping up a terrific race. Among the horses pointing to the race are Storm Flag Flying, last year's 2-year-old filly champion; Bird Town, winner of the Kentucky Oaks; Lady Tak, winner of the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks; House Party, winner of the Grade 2 Nassau County; Randaroo, winner of last year's Grade 3 Valley Stream; and Kitty Knight. Awesome Humor, winner of last year's Grade 1 Spinaway, is listed as possible.

The aforementioned eight horses have combined for 29 wins, 12 seconds, and four thirds from 49 starts.

Kitty Knight, the only non-graded stakes winner in the prospective field, worked seven furlongs in 1:27.65 over Belmont's good main track Thursday.

Ten-pound apprentices shine

In a racing rarity, two 10-pound apprentice jockeys won races at Belmont Park Thursday.

In the second race, Pedro Cotto Jr., an 18-year-old native of Puerto Rico, guided Electric Star from well off the pace to a 2 1/2-length victory. Cotto, whose father also rode in this country, is now 2 for 2 since arriving in this country last week. Monday, Cotto rode a winner at Philadelphia Park.

According to agent Jose Morales Jr., Cotto attended the jockey school in Puerto Rico for two years, but did not ride a winner from approximately 40 mounts at El Commandante. Morales said he received a call from Frank Laboccetta Jr. to ride Electric Star after Laboccetta saw Cotto ride Monday.

Morales said Cotto would make Philadelphia Park his base, but would like to try New York later in the year.

In the sixth race, Shannon Uske rode Chilly Rooster to a 2 1/2-length victory, her fourth career victory. Uske, 17, had ridden Chilly Rooster to a nine-length victory at Aqueduct May 3.

Miss Linda on comeback trail

Miss Linda, a Group 1 winner in both Argentina and North America, worked four furlongs 50.49 seconds over the training track Thursday as she attempts to come back from injury.

Miss Linda, the 2001 Spinster winner, has not raced since finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Go for Wand Hndicap last July 28 at Saratoga. Trainer John Kimmel said Miss Linda cracked a bone in her knee while she was dealing with a different injury.

Kimmel said Miss Linda would probably need another month of training before she would be ready to run.