Thanks to what trainer John Ward terms "unfortunate circumstances," John Oxley's Strong Contender has but one pressure-packed race left for a potential trip to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and he'll need a top finish in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland April 15.The twice-raced son of Maria's Mon was excluded from the overfilled Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) at Turfway Park March 25 because of his lack of earnings. But Ward says he'll stick to the schedule originally mapped out and take Strong Contender to Lexington. The $800,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase made a smashing 3-year-old debut with a 4 ¾-length score in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park Feb. 22. He won his career debut at Arlington Park last summer in his only previous start."It all comes down to one precision drill," said Ward after watching Strong Contender gallop over Gulfstream's main track Friday morning. "Before, we could have made a mistake in the Lane's End and come back in the Blue Grass, and still made it to Louisville. Now, if we're off the mark, we just won't get to go to the Derby. It would be unfortunate, but it won't mean he's lost any of his talent."Ward went through this before when he brought the lightly-raced Monarchos along to win the 2001 Kentucky Derby. Monarchos captured the Florida Derby (gr. I) and had a final prep in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), so the road was far different. Ward also sees plenty of differences athletically between the two horses."Monarchos certainly was talented, but he had the uncanny ability to run the last five-eighths of his race extremely strong and do it explosively," he said. "Strong Contender has a bigger, natural stride. He's like a Greyhound bus. He can get up to a cruising speed and so far he's been able to show he could kick on late from that speed.
"That's where your conditioning program comes in," Ward continued. "Racing is the best teacher for a horse like that. You can't simulate that in training in the morning. We mapped out the schedule to teach him that, but we didn't get that chance at Turfway. We've got to hope he gets it right now in the Blue Grass."Strong Contender may not have raced at Turfway, but the colt got a lesson anyway."We had never shipped him before, so we got to see how he would handle a long ride and we flew him back, so we got to see how he'd handle getting on a plane," he said. "I told Mr. Oxley it ended up being an expensive weekend, but at least we got some positive feedback."