01/04/2007 12:00AM

Two big guns begin year

Jim McCue
Sweetnorthernsaint (right) has an edge in conditioning over his main rival Strong Contender in Saturday's Grade 3 Hal+s Hope Handicap.

HALLANDALE BEACH – Sweetnorthernsaint and Strong Contender, two horses heading in different directions this winter, will begin their 2007 journeys at the same point, as co-highweights in Saturday’s $100,000 Hal’s Hope Handicap.

The Grade 3 Hal’s Hope is one of three stakes on a card that also includes the $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap and the $100,000 Ft. Lauderdale Stakes on turf.

Sweetnorthernsaint, the 2006 Kentucky Derby favorite and Preakness runner-up, will use the one-mile Hal’s Hope as a springboard to the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic here on Jan. 27. Strong Contender, winner of the Grade 2 Dwyer and Grade 2 Super Derby last year, has the Grade 1 Donn Handicap here on Feb. 3 and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on March 3 as his two major goals this winter.

Sweetnorthernsaint may have the edge on conditioning over Strong Contender in the Hal’s Hope, having already had two starts since a five-month layoff in mid-October. Sweetnorthernsaint won both by a combined 12 3/4 lengths and has continued to train forwardly since joining trainer Michael Trombetta’s south Florida-based stable two weeks before Christmas.

“We’ve had this plan mapped out for him for quite a while,” said Trombetta. “The Donn is a Grade 1, but that doesn’t help me because he’s a gelding. We’re going for the million dollars in the Sunshine Classic, and then if all goes well we’ll take a deep breath and evaluate things from there. Our main focus with him, since he’s a gelding, is preservation and longevity.”

Strong Contender, who shares high weight of 120 pounds with Sweetnorthernsaint, may be at a bit of a disadvantage in the Hal’s Hope, having not started since winning the Super Derby on Sept. 23. He has worked twice since shipping to Gulfstream in December.

“He’s probably going to need this race, but this one should set him up perfectly for the Donn and especially the Santa Anita Handicap,” said Ward.

Despite the presence of Sweetnorthernsaint and Strong Contender, the Hal’s Hope drew a surprisingly large field of 13, including Ecclesiastic, who is also entered in the Ft. Lauderdale.

Ecclesiastic, trained by Allen Jerkens, has worked very well at Gulfstream for his first start in nearly nine months.

Jimmy Jerkens also has a candidate – Sir Greeley, who has four victories in six starts at a mile.