05/26/2004 11:00PM

Strong Hope sitting on go for Met


ELMONT, N.Y. - When trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Eugene Melnyk decided to stop on Strong Hope following last year's Travers, they did so hoping to have a fresh horse for this year's Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap.

With the exception of Strong Hope finishing second in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap, Pletcher and Melnyk's plan has worked out very well, as Strong Hope appears to sitting on a huge race in Monday's $750,000 Met Mile.

Strong Hope was one of the most consistent 3-year-olds of 2003, when he reeled off five consecutive wins from April 12 through Aug. 3. That streak included the Grade 2 Dwyer and Grade 2 Jim Dandy, and in the latter, Strong Hope held off Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker. Pletcher tried to stretch Strong Hope to 10 furlongs in the Travers, but Strong Hope was dueled into defeat by Peace Rules and finished third.

Pletcher did not believe that Strong Hope was a fit for any of the Breeders' Cup races, and he and Melnyk decided to freshen him for a strong 4-year-old season. That campaign kicked off with a tremendous 9 3/4-length victory in a March 10 optional claiming race in which Strong Hope ran six furlongs in 1:08.77.

Strong Hope came back one month later in the seven-furlong Carter, but he was turned back by Pico Central, falling 1 1/2 lengths short in a rapidly run race.

Strong Hope's six wins have come at five distances, including two allowance wins at one mile.

"He's exceptional at a number of distances," Pletcher said. "I'd like to think being a miler would be his forte. He stayed in the Jim Dandy just long enough. It looked like he could have beaten anybody that day going six furlongs. He's got speed, but just enough stamina to go along with it to succeed at middle distances."

In an attempt to get Strong Hope to relax early in the Met Mile, Pletcher has been working him behind horses.

At 119 pounds, Strong Hope will be the co-highweight in the Met along with Pico Central. The race also includes dual-classic winner Funny Cide (118), Azeri (117), Gygistar (115), Mobil (115), Bowman's Band (114), Eye of the Tiger (114), and Saarland (113).

Hoping to run in Fashion

Craig Singer, an owner whose horses are based in Texas, wants to send trainer Howard Tesher a 2-year-old filly to run in next Thursday's $75,000 Fashion Stakes. But, Singer must first prove to New York Racing Association officials that Coconut Popsicle has not come in contact with the disease vesticular stomatitis.

The disease was confirmed to have been found in horses on a ranch in Reeves County in western Texas, about 500 miles from Lone Star Park, located near Dallas. As a result of that finding, NYRA will not permit on its grounds horses that have been stabled in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, or New Mexico since May 1 without approval from Dr. Celeste Kunz, NYRA's chief examining veterinarian. Kunz needs to learn where Coconut Popsicle has been prior to stabling at Lone Star Park, as well as receive results of a current blood test on the filly.

"We want to know the movement of that horse, where it was geographically, if it was 500 miles from any reported case," Kunz said. "We're taking it as an individual case; we want to protect our community as well. Have I made a decision on this horse yet? Absolutely not - I need to see the facts. If it looks like there might be any risk, then the horse will not be allowed."

Coconut Popsicle, a Texas-bred daughter of Smart Strike, would be a contender in the Fashion. In her debut, she made up nine lengths in the stretch to win a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race at Lone Star.

"Everybody who saw it said it was amazing," said Tesher, who 20 years ago paired with Singer to win the Astoria Stakes for juvenile fillies with Faster Than Fast. "I can't tell you how good she is, because she beat Texas-breds. But, it's the first time in a long time I've seen jocks' agents come by."

Tesher said Richard Migliore would ride Coconut Popsicle.

Arroyo heading to Delaware

Jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. will look to jump-start a flagging career when he moves his tack to Delaware Park beginning Monday. Arroyo, 28, was the leading rider in New York in 2000 with 185 wins. That year, Arroyo was also the runner-up in the Eclipse Award voting for leading apprentice jockey.

Arroyo has struggled since then, in part because of legal problems that eventually forced him to spend several weeks in jail. Arroyo is only 1 for 40 at the Belmont meet. He is serving a seven-day suspension for careless riding that ends Sunday.

Arroyo hopes to ride for many New York trainers who also have horses at Delaware.

"I've got a good relationship with New York trainers that are there, like the Klesaris brothers [Steve and Bob] and Rick Dutrow," Arroyo said. "I think they're going to use me a lot. Change of atmosphere, too; somewhere I can prove what I can do. I think it'll be very good for me."

Arroyo said he plans to ride at Delaware through the summer, and would like to return to New York for the Aqueduct fall meet.