10/10/2006 11:00PM

First things first for Park Avenue Ball

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Jim Ryerson just wants to get through Friday night's Grade 2, $500,000 Meadowlands Breeders' Cup Stakes with Park Avenue Ball, because what's over the horizon has got to be intimidating.

Park Avenue Ball has carved out a strong career by focusing on races at middle distances, mostly in New Jersey. The Meadowlands Breeders' Cup, at 1 1/8 miles, is ideal. It also could be the final serious prep for older horses for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs, but with Bernardini and Lava Man having scored impressive victories last week in their final preps for the Classic, it's not like trainers are climbing over one another to have at them.

For Park Avenue Ball, the hurdles he faces not only include the competition, but also the distance. The Classic's 1 1/4 miles might be beyond his range. But first things first. There is a major paycheck awaiting at the Meadowlands on Friday night. Ryerson and owners Charlie and Marianne Hesse don't have to worry about anything else until Saturday.

"A mile and a quarter is of course a question mark," Ryerson said on a conference call this week. "We'll see how this race goes, talk to the Hesses, and see where they want to go. The Classic is definitely an option. There's a couple other options, too. Right now, we're just focusing on this race."

The Meadowlands Breeders' Cup is not expected to have a significant impact on the Classic. Which is not to say it's a substandard race. It's just that this year's Classic is shaping up as a sensational race.

Park Avenue Ball, 4, has been a stakes-class runner all three years he has been on the track. His best races have been at Monmouth, where he won the Tyro at 2, was third in the Haskell Invitational last year, and won three races this year, most recently the Iselin Handicap. With the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth next year, Ryerson and the Hesses figure to make next year's Classic a goal.

"He's durable," Ryerson said. "He's a real tough customer. He can sprint, run a middle distance, a mile and an eighth. He shows up all the time. It would be great if we could be in this position next year at home."

Strong Contender, the Super Derby winner, worked five furlongs in 1:01.43 at Belmont Park on Wednesday.

"We're setting him up on a work schedule that will take him to the Classic," said his trainer, John Ward Jr. "We want to see how the race shapes up and the competition. He's warming up in the bullpen, but we haven't put him in the lineup yet."

Despite the exploits of Bernardini, Lava Man, and Invasor, there are an unusual number of Europeans still possible for the Classic. Most notable is David Junior, who the Racing Post this week reported had a sharp recent workout in Great Britain. David Junior is scheduled to travel to Kentucky on Oct. 29.

Shirocco, last year's Breeders' Cup Turf winner, is being considered for his dirt debut in the Classic, as is the top European miler George Washington.