04/07/2004 11:00PM

Strong Hope seeks first Grade 1 win

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Todd Pletcher gave Strong Hope high praise when he said the horse reminded him of Left Bank, a champion he trained. On Saturday at Aqueduct, in the $350,000 Carter Handicap, Strong Hope will try to prove he's worthy of that comparison.

, the 119-pound highweight, is the likely favorite in his quest for his first Grade 1 win. Ten entered the seven-furlong Carter, including the speedy Pico Central from California and Well Fancied, a top local runner with five stakes wins from his last six starts.

A 4-year-old son of Grand Slam, Strong Hope has won six of eight starts. Last year, Strong Hope won a maiden race on the Wood Memorial card and followed with four more wins, including victories in the Grade 2 Dwyer and Grade 2 Jim Dandy. Pletcher put Strong Hope away for the year after the colt finished a well-beaten third in the Travers on Aug. 23, with the intent of targeting this year's Carter and Metropolitan Mile.

Strong Hope has run once this year, winning a six-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park in spectacular fashion on March 10. A 9 3/4-length winner, Strong Hope covered the distance in a blazing 1:08.77 and earned a 114 Beyer Speed Figure.

"I thought he was ready to run, but at the same token, I didn't have him 100 percent cranked," said Pletcher, who trains Strong Hope for Eugene and Laura Melnyk. "It was exciting how well he ran, considering I didn't squeeze the lemon dry."

Strong Hope, who will be ridden by John Velazquez, has set the pace in all but one of his starts, but Pletcher doesn't believe he will be on the lead in the Carter, which is heavy on speed horses. Strong Hope drew post 9.

Well Fancied, Gygistar, and Eye of the Tiger would benefit from a hot pace.

Well Fancied won the Toboggan Handicap here at the Carter distance on March 13. Eye of the Tiger, who ran fifth in last year's Kentucky Derby, is looking for his first win since June.

Gygistar had drawn the rail five of the last seven times he was entered. Trainer Mark Hennig had to be relieved when Gygistar drew post 4 for the Carter. The last stakes won by Gygistar was the Grade 1 King's Bishop in 2002.

"I could have looked for a softer spot to build his confidence, but you can hook some tough horses in a classified allowance race," Hennig said.

The main speed horses are Pico Central and Don Six.

Pico Central, a Group 1 winner in Brazil, is coming off a two-length win in the Grade 2 San Carlos at Santa Anita last month. Don Six is consistent, but would need a top effort to beat Strong Hope.

Secret Run trains at Aqueduct and has won five of his last six starts, but he's taking a huge class jump. Peeping Tom, the 2001 Carter winner, runs back on seven days' rest after finishing third in an allowance race. Badge of Silver raced flatly in the stretch when he finished fifth as the odds-on favorite in the General George in February at Laurel. Super Fuse, a longshot, completes the field.