Strong Hope Looms Large in Carter Handicap

Strong Hope Looms Large in Carter Handicap
Photo: Associated Press
Carter favorite Strong Hope upset Empire Maker in the 2003 Jim Dandy.
Strong Hope, upset winner over Empire Maker in last year's Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), has been installed as the favorite and 119-pound highweight in Saturday's 104th running of the grade I, $350,000 Carter Handicap over seven furlongs at Aqueduct.

The Carter Handicap, which drew a field of 10, is one of three stakes races that will be contested at Aqueduct Saturday. The feature is the 80th running of the grade I, $750,000 Wood Memorial for 3-year-olds at nine furlongs.

The grade III, $150,000-added Bay Shore for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs is also on the card.

Strong Hope rose from the allowance ranks last summer to become one of the sport's top 3-year-olds. It took all of 15 weeks for Strong Hope to win five consecutive races, at four different distances, while ascending in class with each start. His brightest moment came at historic Saratoga in early August, when he turned back a prolonged bid from Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Empire Maker to win the Jim Dandy, his second stakes victory, by a neck.

Strong Hope garnered many supporters in his search for a sixth straight win in the grade I Travers Stakes but a brutal pace battle with Peace Rules took its toll and Strong Hope faded to third.

The Travers was his final start of the year. Trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Eugene Melnyk decided to call it a season with Strong Hope and point for the Carter and Belmont's $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) on May 31 as early season goals.

"We felt that after the Travers we had a horse that had come a long way in a short period of time and looking at the schedule, there weren't too many places to go," said Pletcher. "We could have come to Belmont and run against Mineshaft in the Woodward or in the Super Derby at a mile and a quarter, but there didn't seem like there was a purpose to it. If there was a fit for him, it was the Cigar Mile, but in order to get there we would have kept him in training through September, October and November and there were no races in between.

"He had run eight times since the beginning of March and it just didn't seem like the right thing to do. I didn't want to back him up to the Breeders' Cup Sprint and I didn't want to run on turf for the first time in the Breeders' Cup Mile. He's such a nice horse and we wanted to do the right thing by him, give him the time and bring him back as a four-year-old. Knock on wood, everything's gone perfect with him."

Strong Hope, a son of Grand Slam, was nothing short of sensational in his return to the races on March 10 at Gulfstream Park. Sent off at 3-5 in a high-priced optional claimer going six furlongs, Strong Hope quickly gained command and drew off to a lopsided victory. Jockey John Velazquez never moved a muscle on the colt, who completed the six furlongs in a blistering 1:08 3/5.

"We obviously expected him to run well," Pletcher said. "I was a little concerned that three quarters was a little too short for him, but he was spectacular. Hopefully, he can come back with a similar type of performance in a race like the Carter. He showed last year he was a quality horse. He was good enough to win everywhere from seven furlongs to a mile and an eighth."

After hearing the Carter's defending champion, Congaree, and grade I winning Ghostzapper were skipping the Carter, trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. decided to enter the venerable New York-bred gelding Well Fancied.

Well Fancied will enter the Carter with the intentions of staying undefeated on the year. His 2004 resume includes victories in the grade II General George and the Toboggan Handicap. Additionally, Well Fancied will be racing over a track he simply adores as he is 3-1-1 from eight starts over the main track.

"It's tough to say whether Belmont or the outer track, but he loves it here," said exercise rider/jockey Rudy Rodriguez, who gets aboard Well Fancied every day. "I think he's still improving. He's going to run big on Saturday."

Well Fancied, a New York-bred son of Prosper Fager, has won five stakes for Dutrow ranging from seven to nine furlongs. Dutrow, however, says seven eighths might be his best distance.

"I think so," Dutrow said. "There should be some pace in there with Secret Run, Pico Central, Don Six and Badge of Silver quick enough. It's going to set up good for us if we get things our way. He loves stalking other horses."

Trainer Frank Laboccetta Jr. was only a child when his father, Frank Laboccetta, saddled Air Forbes Won to a victory in the 1982 Wood Memorial. And having been a product of the Aqueduct backstretch for most of his life, Laboccetta Jr. is understandably excited about the opportunity to win the prestigious Carter Handicap with Secret Run.

"It's our first chance at winning a real big race," Laboccetta said. "It's gonna be exciting."

Under Laboccetta Jr. since a $40,000 claim in mid October, Secret Run has gone from mid-level claimer to one of the fastest sprinters on the grounds. A 4-year-old by End Sweep, Secret Run enters the Carter having won four of five starts for Laboccetta Jr. with an average winning margin of 4 1/2 lengths. He's never faced the likes of Strong Hope or Well Fancied, but now may be the time to try them.

"We're going to take a shot," Laboccetta said. "He's improved over the last few months and he's learning how to relax.

"We thought he was a good sprinter before we took him. They were running him long and on the grass, I just think they had the wrong idea for whatever reason. The owner, Laz Chapman, is very sharp. He had had his eye on him for a while. It's worked out nicely."

Secret Run, undefeated in a pair of starts over the main track here, is making his seven-furlong debut in the Carter.

Ken Ramsey's Badge of Silver returned from a long layoff spurred by an injury last spring to win his 4-year-old debut at Fair Grounds in late January. He will attempt to turn the tables on Well Fancied after running fifth in the General George at 3-5. Badge of Silver, another colt making his seven-furlong debut in the Carter, is trained by Ronny Werner.

The field in post position order for the Carter Handicap:
1. Super Fuse, Jorge Chavez, 112
2. Eye of the Tiger, Mike Luzzi, 114
3. Pico Central, Alex Solis, 117
4. Gygistar, Pablo Fragoso, 115
5. Secret Run, Norberto Arroyo, 112
6. Don Six, Shaun Bridgmohan, 112
7. Badge of Sliver, Jerry Bailey, 114
8. Well Fancied, Eibar Coa, 116
9. Strong Hope, John Velazquez, 119
10. Peeping Tom, Ariel Smith, 113

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