03/08/2004 1:00AM

Strong Hope preps for Carter


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Florida Derby week begins with a Jim Dandy of a feature Wednesday at Gulfstream Park.

, last year's Jim Dandy winner, makes his seasonal debut in a $46,000 classified allowance race at six furlongs. He will face seven rivals, including David's Expectation, the only horse offered for the optional claiming tag of $125,000.

This will be Strong Hope's first race since last Aug. 23, when he finished a well-beaten third behind Ten Most Wanted in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Before that, Strong Hope, a huge son of Grand Slam, had won five consecutive races, including the Dwyer and Jim Dandy, both Grade 2 events.

Though trainer Todd Pletcher said there was nothing physically wrong with Strong Hope following the Travers, Pletcher and owner Eugene Melnyk opted to stop on the horse. Pletcher said neither he nor Melnyk felt Strong Hope was a good fit for any of the Breeders' Cup races such as the Sprint, Classic, or Mile.

The Cigar Mile, in late November, was possible, but it would have meant keeping Strong Hope in training for most of the year and Pletcher and Melnyk wanted a fresh horse for a 4-year-old campaign. The Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap on May 31 at Belmont Park is the major objective for Strong Hope.

Wednesday's race is designed to get Strong Hope to the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 10. Strong Hope has only raced at six furlongs once in his career, finishing fourth behind the subsequent stakes winner Grand Hombre in a race that went in 1:08.60.

"That would be my one concern,'' Pletcher said of the distance. "It may not be his best distance, but we need to get a race into him before the Carter. He's ready to start. He's not overdone, and that's the main thing.''

Strong Hope will break from post 8 under John Velazquez.

Strong Hope is not the only stakes winner returning in this spot. Twilight Road, winner of the 2002 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs, makes his first start since last November for trainer Paul McGee.

, trained by Ralph Ziadie, is a multiple stakes winner who has not raced since December 2002. He is 7 for 11 at six furlongs.

David's Expectation finished second behind Lion Tamer in a similarly conditioned race to this on Jan. 28. Lion Tamer came back to win last Saturday's Richter Scale Breeders' Cup Handicap.