Strong Contender Excluded from Lane's End Field

John Oxley's Strong Contender, who would have been the heavy favorite for Saturday's $500,000 Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), did not make the starting field when 12 others with higher earnings were entered.

Strong Contender, who had been stabled at Gulfstream Park this winter, was on a van passing through Berea, Ky., on his way to Turfway Park when trainer John T. Ward Jr. heard the news. He immediately contacted the van driver and re-directed him to his farm, located across the road from Keeneland racetrack.

Strong Contender, undefeated in both his starts, will get a brief rest and then head back to Gulfstream Saturday morning where the son of Maria's Mon will begin preparation for the Wood Memorial (gr. I) April 8.

"That's how the game goes," Ward said. "They (Turfway officials) thought, after polling everybody, we'd have no problem getting in the field, but I guess they had some additional entries show up at the last minute."

When asked about running in the 1 1/16-mile Rushaway Stakes on the same card, Ward said, "That was a possibility, but it didn't make sense. It's not a graded race, and I'd have to come back in a graded race to assure myself a spot in the (Kentucky) Derby (gr. I), and I wouldn't be able to secure a rider. In the next race down the line, the top riders are going to be more or less committed.

"I talked to Mr. Oxley and we're going to fall back and go to the Wood. It's an ideal prep timing-wise and I wouldn't have to run him again. If he runs an "A" race it will set him up for the next one."

Ward said he has no concerns about going into the Kentucky Derby off only three career starts. "It might be the best decision," Ward said. "What people don't factor in is that this horse had a very rigorous 2-year-old-in-training situation. It was like having two starts, and he's a big fit horse; you can't have them any fitter that he is. And maybe a fresh horse is going to be the best horse. You can't do things like you used to because the landscape has changed -- preps have changed, everything has changed."

In regard to having to wait three weeks to run a horse who is primed to race this weekend, Ward said jokingly: "Two 15-hour van rides to Kentucky and back to Florida is like working him a mile and a half right there. He's at my barn in Lexington and I've got a van scheduled at 10 (Saturday) morning to go back to Florida. That's where all the top riders are and that's where he has been training all winter. I don'twant to start switching tracks now."