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April 11, 2006

Sports Bits: A Blue Grass ‘Contender’

Strong Contender. A snappy name for a Kentucky Derby hopeful. But so far, it’s just another name in the Derby game. That could change Saturday. The horse with the promising name and a ton of promise will finally — finally! — get the chance to prove he is, or is not, a strong contender for the Kentucky Derby when he makes just the third start of his career in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course.

The Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby (also Saturday) are the final two big Derby preps. All of the rest — Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby and so on — are in the books, and the stars of those races are already on their way to Louisville for the 132nd Run for the Roses. With a big effort in the 11/8 miles Blue Grass, Strong Contender can join them.

It isn’t just that Strong Contender needs a big performance to prove he belongs in the Derby, he also needs the cash.

As we learn every spring, the Kentucky Derby field is limited to the top 20 entrants based on earnings in “graded stakes races.” Strong Contender doesn’t have a nickel’s worth of graded stakes earnings, and as things stand now he couldn’t get into the Derby.

But he can get into the Blue Grass. And the $500,000 first place prize could vault the son of Maria’s Mon straight into the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Second-place money might also be enough. But it won’t be easy. Strong Contender is the likely third choice in the betting behind Bluegrass Cat and First Samurai. Both are well seasoned, and fast.

But why is all this news? There are at least 30,000 other 3-year-olds out there whose owners would love to get their horse in the Kentucky Derby. What’s different about Strong Contender?

The difference is he might really belong.

Since last summer, the “word” has been out on Strong Contender. He’s owned by John and Debbie Oxley, and trained by John Ward Jr. — the same team that took the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos — and knowledgeable observers have raved that this horse, too, might be the Real McCoy.

After a sparkling debut triumph in Chicago last August, a cracked shin forced Strong Contender to the sideline for six months. But when he returned to the races in February in Florida, he really romped.

The Blood-Horse magazine reported that the triumph left the trainer convinced. “We were anxious to see what our hole card was, and it turned out it was an ace,” Ward said.

But the Derby Trail has many turns. And some detours. Realizing that his horse needed to earn enough to get into the Derby, Ward loaded Strong Contender on a van in sunny south Florida in March, bound for Florence, Ky., to run in the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park.

A thousand miles and 151/2 van-hours later, Ward learned his horse would not qualify for the Lanes End because the race had unexpectedly drawn 13 entrants, and Strong Contender ranked 13th in a race limited to 12 horses — based on earnings!

#*$&%#!
Ward rested his horse overnight at his farm near Keeneland, then booked Strong Contender on a plane carrying horses from Lexington to Ocala, Fla. From there Strong Contender was vanned five more hours to his home training base near Ft. Lauderdale. A 2,000-mile round trip, with nothing to show for it.

To his credit, Ward didn’t grumble. He told Daily Racing Form writer Marty McGee that he returned the horse to Florida to continue to train in good weather. “In this game,” Ward said, “you’ve always got to have a Plan B, and that’s what we’re dealing with right now.”

Last week, Strong Contender worked a sharp five furlongs in 1:003/5 at Gulfstream Park, and Ward again loaded Strong Contender on a van for another 1,000-mile ride to Kentucky. The Blue Grass Stakes has produced 22 Kentucky Derby winners, and Ward hopes his Plan B makes 23.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com