Polytrack a Plus for Strong Contender

John Oxley's Strong Contender, one of what is shaping up to be a full field of contenders for the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) at Turfway Park, has had plenty of experience with Polytrack and trainer John T. Ward Jr. figures that to be a plus for Saturday afternoon's race.

"It's a plus for us because he trained a lot over the Polytrack at Keeneland (training track) prior to the 2-year-old sale last year," Ward said during a teleconference Tuesday afternoon. "Murray Smith, who consigned the horse, said he loved it."

Strong Contender must have liked the synthetic surface, as he brought a final bid of $800,000 from Oxley for the colt last April. On the racetrack, Strong Contender is two for two, having broken his maiden at Arlington Park last August, then winning a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park Feb. 22. Ward said the son of Maria's Mon suffered a slight fracture in his shin after his maiden race and they took their time getting him back to the races.

"We gave him all of the fall," Ward said. "He started galloping at Gulfstream in December and we were under a tight schedule to get him here, but he has responded to everything we asked of him."

Ward said that schedule is a little relaxed now that he's prepared for the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End and "everything is good." He said the colt will travel from Gulfstream via van, leaving Wednesday night and arriving midday on Thursday. "He doesn't have to do anything else," Ward said. "He doesn't have to gallop or do any paddock work. He can just walk over there and run on Saturday."

Strong Contender, bred in Kentucky by Haras Santa Maria de Araras, is out of the Dynaformer mare Kopenhagen.

According to Turfway Park officials, as many as 11 others will face the starter in the Lane's End, that will be televised live on ESPN2 on a program that airs from 5-6 p.m. EST. Also under consideration are:

- Laity, Claiborne Farm's homebred winner of the 1 1/16-mile John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway March 4;

- Silent Times, winner of the Intercasino.dom Champagne Stakes (Eng-II) last September for trainer Eoghan J. O'Neill;

- Pair of Kings, second in the Battaglia and trained by "Buff" Bradley, who is in Dubai to saddle Brass Hat in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I);

- More Than Regal, winner of the one-mile Sportsman's Paradise Stakes at Evangeline Downs March 4;

- Seaside Retreat, winner of the Display Stakes at Woodbine last November

- Malameeze, fourth in the Battaglia and a maiden winner over Polytrack in December;

- Starspangled Gator, who has a 2-2-0 mark over Polytrack in four starts;

- In a Flash, an allowance winner over the Polytrack March 4;

- Tahoe Warrior, an allowance winner at Gulfstream Feb. 26 for trainer Todd Pletcher. Pletcher trained last year's Lane's End winner Flower Alley;

- With a City, an allowance winner over the surface, but up the track in the Battaglia;

- Special Interest, still a maiden after seven tries.

One of Ward's biggest concerns regarding Strong Contender is that jockey Edgar Prado has not raced on Polytrack. But as for the horse, Ward said he had four things going for him in the Lane's End.

"First, he has performed well over it," he said. "Two, is the timing; we can get another race into him if we have too. Three, are the sweeping turns of the track; and four, after the race, I know I'll get an animal as good back as when I sent him out.

"This race will point out horses that do have stamina. We know he can handle it, and it will be beneficial. It (Polytrack) will not degrade his physical condition. As for his longevity, if he does well, it will be a plus for him going forward."

Should the colt advance, it would be the second son of Maria's Mon Ward would prepare for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) for Oxley. The tandem won the 2001 running with Monarchos.

"Physically, there are no similarities," Ward said of the two colts. "Monarchos was a medium-sized horse while Strong Contender is a great, big, lanky animal. But from training both horses, the Maria's Mon puts a lot of stamina in these horses. It's amazing how deep they are in terms of stamina."

Ward feels stamina will play an important role in the first major Derby prep run over Polytrack. And he should know--his base in Kentucky is at Keeneland, where the training track is a Polytrack surface.

"Polytrack tends to dull speed just a touch in sprint races and on the route side, it helps a horse keep a big, long stride. It lets you open up on a horse. I hope Strong Contender can go out there are gallop them to death, then sprint on home."

With Strong Contender making his stakes debut in the Lane's End, Ward knows he needs some graded earnings to advance to the first Saturday in May. With the positioning of the race six weeks before the Derby, he has the option of getting another race into him. The logical spot would be the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) at Keeneland April 15.