"I've got a better one in the barn." You've heard trainers say that often enough after a big victory. Most of the time, it turns out they don't have a better one in the barn. In John Ward's case, he just may. All year, Ward has been saying if only Hero's Tribute had the mind of Monarchos or his other top 3-year-old, Holiday Thunder, all owned by John Oxley. If only he wanted to be a racehorse as much as they do. All you kept hearing in the Ward barn was how much untapped ability Hero's Tribute had.
But not only did Hero's Tribute lack the mental constitution of his two stablemates, he had problems with a quarter crack, and came out of his shocking last-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) with a thyroid problem and skin fungus. In short, the son of Sea Hero was a mess, physically and mentally. He had already shown what he was capable of when he scored a brilliant allowance victory at Gulfstream in his 3-year-old debut, easily defeating Dream Run and A P Valentine. That was followed by a troubled third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). The Blue Grass was supposed to be the perfect spot to set him up for a peak performance in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Instead, it turned into a disaster.
Ward backed off, put the blinkers on for a workout at Churchill Downs, then again for a work at Pimlico. Hero's Tribute showed a marked improvement, keeping his head down, with more focus on what he was supposed to do. Ward then unveiled what he hoped was the new Hero's Tribute in the May 26 Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II). With the blinkers on to help keep his mind on business, and a Z-bar shoe to protect his quarter crack, Hero's Tribute went out and did some serious running over a sloppy, but blazing, track, outdueling the favored E Dubai from the start. In a virtual match race, Hero's Tribute ran E Dubai into the ground through torrid fractions before drawing off to win by 3 3/4 lengths in 1:47.47 for the 1 1/8 miles.
A field of seven was entered, with Godolphin's E Dubai the 7-10 favorite under Jerry Bailey, who had turned down the mount on Congaree in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) to honor his commitment on Hero's Tribute in the Blue Grass. Having watched Congaree pick apart Monarchos at Aqueduct minutes earlier, Bailey was not a happy camper when he stepped on the gas in the Blue Grass only to discover there was nothing in the tank.
Among the others entered were Meetyouathebrig, coming off an explosive 6 1/4-length victory in the Derby Trial Stakes (gr. II); California invader I Love Silver, who had chased Point Given home in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I); and Dayton Flyer, a top-class 2-year-old who was coming off an impressive seven-furlong allowance victory at Belmont in his 3-year-old debut.
Although the track was sloppy from all-day rains, the surface was packed down solid, resulting in some eye-catching times, such as Dat You Miz Blue's six-furlong allowance score in 1:07.92. With come-from-behind horses at a distinct disadvantage, Hero's Tribute, reunited with regular rider Jorge Chavez, charged out of the gate and immediately slugged it out with E Dubai, who was coming off a front-running 12 1/2-length allowance victory at Belmont at 1 1/16 miles.
With Hero's Tribute on the outside, both horses blazed through fractions of :44.87 and 1:08.59. As upset as Bailey was in the Blue Grass, he wasn't much happier in the Peter Pan after discovering that the jalopy he had ridden at Keeneland was now revved up with a new engine and blowing exhaust fumes in his face.
Hero's Tribute drew off in the stretch, passing the furlong pole in 1:33.75. Although he ducked to the rail, he was already well clear of E Dubai, who had to settle for second, 10 1/4 lengths ahead of third-place finisher Dayton Flyer.
Ward said he'll look for one more race on the East Coast before going to Hollywood Park for the $500,000 Swaps Stakes (gr. I) on July 15. E Dubai will remain in New York and point for the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) on July 8. Successful Return
That was quite a magic act the 8,141 in attendance at Belmont Park witnessed on May 27. Right before their eyes a competitive 10-horse field on the grass was transformed into a three-horse field on the dirt. That's what happened to the seven-furlong Jaipur Handicap when seven horses were scratched after the race was taken off the turf following two days of rain.
But sometimes, you don't need a large field for a race to be exciting. There were enough thrills to go around for everyone when the old warrior Affirmed Success, making his first start of the year, hooked up with the younger speedball Texas Glitter nearing the head of the stretch. With the third horse in the field, Bought in Dixie, already well out of the picture, the fans were treated to another match race, as Affirmed Success, under Jerry Bailey, eyeballed the stubborn Texas Glitter throughout the stretch before finally easing clear in the closing stages to win by a length in 1:21.69 over the muddy track.
The 7-year-old Affirmed Success, owned by Albert Fried Jr., will go back to the turf, with his ultimate goal being the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), in which he was fourth last year, beaten in a four-horse photo.