02/20/2006 1:00AM

Big talent, little purse

Adam Coglianese
Two-time stakes-placed High Cotton makes his 3-year-old debut in a tough race Wednesday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Wednesday's ninth race at Gulfstream Park will be decided at a mile under first-level allowance conditions for a mere $33,000 purse. But the race has drawn a stakes-quality field - one that could have a major impact on the 3-year-old division on the road to this year's Kentucky Derby.

, Strong Contender, and Storm Treasure will all be making their 3-year-old debuts in Wednesday's race, while the undefeated Roamin Murphy and the improving Ice N Lemon each will have the advantage of a race over the track here this winter.

High Cotton figures to be favored despite the fact that he has not started since finishing second behind Private Vow in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26. High Cotton was also second, beaten a neck by Catcominatcha, in Churchill's Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes three weeks earlier.

"We gave him a little time off because he ran hard at 2, but he's been training well for his return," said Todd Pletcher, who trains High Cotton. "It's an awfully tough race for a first-level allowance, but that's the nature of the beast down here this time of year."

was an impressive 3 3/4-length winner of his only start, last August at Arlington Park. Trainer John Ward had to stop on him because of a minor injury. But Strong Contender has not missed a beat in the morning since returning to training at Gulfstream this winter, and comes into the race off a bullet 59.60-second five-furlong work on Friday.

"We have high hopes for him," said Ward. "The game plan is to ultimately make either the Wood or Blue Grass, and then get to the Derby if he can dance all the dances."

Storm Treasure finished second in his first two starts, then exploded to a 7 1/4-length maiden allowance win when stretched out to a mile by trainer Steve Asmussen for his 2-year-old finale on Nov. 6. Like High Cotton, he also has trained steadily at Palm Meadows for his return.

was an impressive debut winner going seven furlongs here on Jan. 28, making a quick move from midpack to reach the lead after a half-mile before drawing off to an easy 6 3/4-length victory.

Ice N Lemon won his maiden at Calder on Dec. 24 but ran his best race in his 3-year-old debut, rallying from far back to finish third behind Barbican and Laptop Computer in a first-level allowance race on Jan. 15.