With handicap division leader Harlan's Holiday several thousand miles away in Dubai, John Oxley's favored Hero's Tribute took full advantage to tally an easy victory in Saturday's $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II).
The 5-year-old son of Sea Hero, ridden by Edgar Prado, had never been the 1 1/4-mile distance before in his 21-race career. But after the way he pulled away from the field in the stretch to record a four-length victory over 54-1 shot Aeneas, trainer John Ward Jr. may not shy from it any longer. The final time on a fast track was a not-so-dazzling 2:04 1/5, however.
Hero's Tribute could not handle Harlan's Holiday in the Donn Handicap (gr. 1) at nine furlongs on Feb. 22 at Gulfstream, finishing second, 2 1/2 lengths behind. But with Harlan's Holiday chasing World Cup winner Moon Ballad, Hero's Tribute was made the favorite among the eight entered at Gulfstream.
Prado got him to relax in second on the inside while Generous Rosi and jockey Mark Guidry jumped out to a sizeable early lead through fractions of :23 4/5 for the quarter-mile, :48 for the half and 1:12 3/5 for six furlongs. As the frontrunner began to come back to the pack, Hero's Tribute waited patiently when Aeneas and Rene Douglas made a looping move on the outside to grab the lead briefly in upper stretch.
Hero's Tribute engaged the longshot for the lead and pulled clear under urging without a challenge in the final eighth of a mile. Puzzlement and Cornelio Velaquez ran close to the front throughout to finish third, five lengths behind the winner, with Strive, ridden by Jerry Bailey, a mildy rallying fourth, 6 1/2 lengths from the front.
Hero's Tribute broke a three-race losing streak since winning the ungraded Black Tie Affair at Arlington on Breeders' Cup Day. It was his seventh victory overall and the $180,000 winner's share Saturday increased his career earnings to $832,890.
Hero's Tribute paid $5.60, $3.40 and $2.80. Aeneas returned $23 and $10.20. Puzzlement's show price was $4. The $2 exacta was $155.60.