The 5-year-old son of Claiborne Farm stallion First Samurai looked much the best in a 3 1/4-length triumph after closely pressing last year's winner Csaba through moderate early fractions into the turn, opening a 1 1/4-length advantage into the stretch, and drawing clear under Luis Saez, who tallied a milestone 1,000th win.
"It's amazing," Saez said in the winner's circle after the Hal's Hope. "I thank God. I need to thank the trainers, the owners and my agent, too."
Csaba, who clocked early fractions of :24.15 and :47.03 through a half mile, led Lea by just a head after six furlongs in 1:10.87, then faded out of contention. Multiple grade I winner Jackson Bend was ready to pounce and rapidly advanced from sixth at the three-quarter mark third in early stretch but could only chase Lea, who powerfully pulled away to the win.
A graded stakes winner of turf and an allowance winner on a sloppy main track, Lea tallied his first win on a fast main track while making his first start for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
At 6-1 odds in the nine-horse field, Lea covered the one turn mile in 1:35.20, improving his career line to 5-2-2 from 11 starts and boosting his bankroll to $409,618 with the $60,000 winner's share of the Hal's Hope purse.
Jackson Bend outfinished Neck 'n Neck by a half-length for second. Csaba, the 3-1 favorite, checked in sixth.
Lea was making his first start in more than two months since a fifth-placed finish in the Fayette Stakes (gr. II) on the Polytrack Oct. 26 at Keeneland. The Hal's Hope marked his second graded stakes win following his victory in the 2012 Commonwealth Turf Stakes (gr. IIIT) going 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs to cap that season. He also owns three placings in a trio of graded stakes: the 2013 Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) and Fourstardave Handicap (gr. IIT) and the 2012 Hawthorne Derby (gr. IIIT), all for previous trainer Al Stall Jr., who tried him in a one-mile dirt race at Churchill in his 2013 debut. He passed the test in sloppy going, winning by 3 1/4 lengths.
Owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, Lea is out of the stakes-placed Galileo mare Greenery. He paid 4.80, $7.40, and $5.80 while Jackson Been returned $5.60 and $4.20. The 6-4 exacta paid $92.20.
Saez is a a graduate of Panama's Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School, and started riding in Florida at the age of 17. He was an Eclipse Award finalist as outstanding apprentice in 2009 and became standout rider at Calder Casino & Race Course, where he won four consecutive riding titles. He rode six winners during a single card at Calder on August 12, 2012.
In 2013, Saez ranked ninth nationally with his 1,310 mounts earning $13,102,164. Overall, his 5,351 mounts have amassed purse earnings $30,728,548.
Saez gained national recognition last year riding Eclipse Award 3-year-old male Eclipse Award finalist Will Take Charge to victory in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) before finishing second in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and defeating Game On Dude in the Clark Handicap (gr. I).