05/16/2005 11:00PM

'Surprise' still taking it slow

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ALBANY, Calif. - Surprise Halo is one of those horses who has grown on trainer and owner Dennis Ward. A 7-year-old gelding, Surprise Halo has probably lost a step or two over the years and hasn't won since recording his lone stakes victory in the Alamedan at Pleasanton in 2003, but he is the horse six rivals have to beat in Thursday's Golden Gate Fields feature, a $50,000 optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Although it has been almost two years since that last victory, Surprise Halo is just $12 shy of $400,000 in earnings, a figure barely matched by the combined total of the rest of the field. His nine turf victories alone are more than the overall victories of any of his rivals.

"I have to keep him in this range to give him a chance," said Ward. "Maybe by the summer, he'll be ready for stakes company again."

, who runs for a tag, comes into the race off a solid effort in a $32,000 claimer at one mile on turf April 27, when he returned from a seven-month break and finished third by 3 1/2 lengths to Epic Power.

"I gave him all winter off," said Ward, who gave Surprise Halo a short but concentrated campaign last year.

Surprise Halo showed big improvement last year in his second start off a layoff, finishing third by three-quarters of a length in May 2004. Ward said he likes the way he came out of his race April 27.

, whose string of seven straight first- or second-place finishes was snapped in a troubled trip last time out, may inherit the lead. Despite good turf breeding, he has run better on the main track.

The same could be said for most of Surprise Halo's primary rivals, with the exception of , whose three career victories have come on the turf.

* Chad Schvaneveldt, now fully recovered from the pancreatitis that prevented him from riding at Bay Meadows, is third in the jockey standings with four wins from 14 mounts during the first week here.

"I feel good," he said. "I'm starting to get my legs back now. No matter how much work you do, there's nothing like riding in races."