04/11/2006 12:00AM

Do or die for Strong Contender

Strong Contender, with trainer John T. Ward Jr., must finish first or second in Saturday's Blue Grass to have a shot at making the Derby field.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Strong Contender did not have the best of trips when he came to Kentucky last month. His trainer, John T. Ward Jr., is hopeful things will go better Saturday.

Heck, if Strong Contender just gets in the starting gate for the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, that will be an improvement over the last time he came to this state.

Strong Contender was en route by van from Florida to Turfway Park for the Lane's End Stakes when Ward received a call that Strong Contender would be excluded from the oversubscribed race because of insufficient earnings. Strong Contender took a detour here to Keeneland, where Ward has a private barn, chilled out for a few days, then flew back to Florida, where he was based this winter.

"He was here long enough to get over the trip coming up," Ward said at his Keeneland barn on Tuesday morning. "We flew him back to Florida on that Saturday, and he was back in his stall by post time for the Turfway race."

Strong Contender is now back at Keeneland, where on Saturday in the Blue Grass he will put his undefeated record on the line and try to earn a berth in the May 6 Kentucky Derby.

The Blue Grass is critical race for Strong Contender. Although he has won both his starts in stylish fashion and is regarded as one of the most promising members of this crop of 3-year-olds, his inexperience could betray him Saturday. Strong Contender is going up against First Samurai and Bluegrass Cat, both of whom have been among the leaders of this crop since last year. And, since Strong Contender has yet to run in a stakes race, he does not have one penny in graded-stakes earnings. If the Kentucky Derby has more than 20 entrants, graded-stakes earnings will determine the starting field.

"This is a make-or-break race for us," Ward said. "We've got to be one-two to get a slot. First Samurai is a hell of a horse to beat. And you've got Bluegrass Cat, who John Velazquez says is his choice for the Derby. So, we've got to beat at least one of those two, and the rest of the field. There's no room for error. If he makes an error, we'll sit on the sidelines and do something else."

Strong Contender, an attractive chestnut colt with a small star on his forehead, has had a buzz about him for at least a year. At last year's sale of 2-year-olds at Keeneland, Strong Contender was the sales topper, going for $800,000 to Ward's client John Oxley. They purchased Strong Contender from bloodstock agent Murray Smith, who sold Oxley and Ward their 2001 Kentucky Derby winner, Monarchos, who, like Strong Contender, is by Maria's Mon.

Ward was inclined to go slowly with Strong Contender, being as he was not born until May 15 in 2003. So, Strong Contender will not celebrate his actual third birthday until nine days after this year's Kentucky Derby.

Strong Contender was favored in his debut last Aug. 12 at Arlington Park, and he ran to notices by romping despite a rough start and wide trip.

He came out of that race with a minor shin fracture, though, which kept him sidelined until Feb. 22. Strong Contender trained sensationally heading into that comeback race at Gulfstream Park and ran to those works, crushing a first-level allowance field by 4 3/4 lengths going a mile.

That's it. Both races were terrific, but now Strong Contender must make his stakes debut and stretch out around two turns for the first time, in only his third lifetime start while facing seasoned and accomplished Derby contenders.

Does he have enough experience?

"One thing that helps is the fact he went through a 2-year-old in training sale, which is like having two races," Ward said. "The times he has run, both riders - Shaun Bridgmohan and Edgar Prado - commented on how professional he was. He doesn't seem like he has any bad habits."

Still, Ward said, "he's got to step up."

"We're giving up experience in the race to take on a couple of pretty nice horses," Ward said. "But if for some reason he doesn't step up, it does not mean you're going to see him on eBay the next day."