Though he has had only one previous start, John Oxley's 3-year-old Strong Contender could merit serious consideration on the road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with his 4 3/4-length triumph over a strong field of sophomores in his first start of the year Wednesday at Gulfstream Park.
Ridden by Edgar Prado for trainer John Ward, Strong Contender came out running in the 11-horse field, leading all the way while setting a solid pace in the one-mile allowance event. The son of Maria's Mon
-Kopenhagen (by Dynaformer
) drew clear of the stalking Big Lover in the final furlong to win under some urging in 1:34 3/5 over a fast track.
"We've really never gotten to the bottom of this horse," Ward said. "We've never really wanted to, but we were anxious to see what our hole card was, and it turned out it was an ace. We have three to four weeks to decide what's next."
Strong Contender, who clipped off fractions of :23 4/5, :45 4/5 and 1:09 2/5, caught a break when 7-5 favorite High Cotton, making his 2006 debut for trainer Todd Pletcher, stumbled badly at the start. Hustled up to the leaders by John Velazquez, High Cotton, a son of Dixie Union
, showed brief speed to the far turn before tailing off. He was eased in the stretch.
Storm Treasure, ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan, finished second by a neck with 23-1 shot Big Lover and Manoel Cruz third, 6 1/2 lengths clear of the fourth-place horse Roamin Murphy.
Bred in Kentucky by Haras Santa Maria de Araras, S.A., the chestnut colt Strong Contender was purchased for $800,000 at the Keeneland September sales. He won his only other start Aug. 12 at Arlington Park by 3 ¾ lengths.
Strong Contender, who paid $6.60, $4.80, and $4, was the second choice.
"It was a super trip all the way around," Prado said. "He broke so well, and put himself in perfect position. I felt comfortable every step of the way. Other horses would come to him, and he would just take off again ... a really nice ride, and he did it easy, and that's the scary part. Turning for home, I hit him to get his mind on business, but he was just waiting for me to tell him what to do. There is plenty left in that tank."