Owned by Adele Dilschneider and Caliborne Farm, Lea was making his first start since taking last year's $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I) on Feb. 9 at Gulfstream. Getting up in the final strides to post the decision in his return, the 6-year-old son of First Samurai proved he should be a strong factor in the handicap division if he stays healthy in 2015.
"On this track I think it was an exceptional race," winning trainer Bill Mott said. "Usually the speed horses turn for home and they get loose from you, but he obviously is a good horse. I thought he was pretty fit, but he'd still been off a year. There's nothing like having a race. You can train one all day long, but you have to give a lot of credit to the horse to be able to come off that kind of a layoff and get the job done."
After taking the Hal's Hope last year, Lea went on to take the 1 1/8-mile Donn in a track record time of 1:46.86, defeating Travers' winner Will Take Charge . He seemed poised to be a top threat among older horses until a virus sidelined him the entire year.
The Hal's Hope repeat was his third straight win and his seventh from 13 career starts for earnings of $802,618.
Breaking from the rail as the even-money favorite in the five-horse field under jockey Joel Rosario, Lea was racing in fourth saving ground along the rail behind the pace being set by second-choice Valid and Golden Lad , who were pressed by Prayer for Relief through a half-mile in :47.75. Confrontation trailed the compact field by less than three lengths.
As the field turned for home, Lea was shuffled back to last, while Confrontation made a big move to take the lead at the top of the stretch. He appeared the winner before Rosario swung Lea out to the five path and circled the pack, catching Confrontation to prevail just in time.
"I thought he could get beat," Mott said. "I could see that he had plenty of horse, but he was waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, he was able to tip out and he had to tip out late. When you tip out here, you only have three-sixteenths of a mile to go. It's not like you've got a quarter-mile stretch. It was interesting."
Lea became the first horse since Chatain (2007-08) to win back-to-back runnings of the Hal's Hope.
"It wasn't an easy race to win," Rosario said. "I've got to give him all the credit. He was available to do everything easy. Every time I asked him a little bit he was there for me. He made my job easy. I was waiting for someone to go in or someone to go out so I could in between. They just stayed there, so at the three-sixteenths pole, I had to go around and make a move so we could win. He's come back great. He looks great. Not running for a year and to run like this. He's very special."
Lea returned $4 to win, $2.80 to place and $2.10 to show after running the mile in 1:35.46 over Gulfstream's main track that was labeled fast.
Confrontation paid $7.40 to place and $3.40 to show, while Prayer for Relief returned $3.40 to show.
Valid and Golden Lad weakened to fourth and fifth respectively. Slim Shadey was an early scratch.
Lea, who was also bred by Dilschneider and Claiborne in Kentucky out of the Galileo mare Greenery, may come back next to defend his title in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Feb. 7.