10/10/2001 11:00PM

F&M Turf news: Snow Dance has Grade 1 potential

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - John T. Ward Jr. has saddled the winners of Grade 1 races at Gulfstream, Woodbine, Belmont, and Churchill Downs. The most recent win came in May at Churchill, where Monarchos gave Ward his greatest career thrill by winning the 127th Kentucky Derby.

But Ward has never won a Grade 1 at Keeneland, even though he has lived just outside the back gate virtually his entire 56-plus years. "Never gotten one of those gold julep cups" that signifies a Grade 1 win at Keeneland, he said.

By Saturday evening, that may have changed. With Snow Dance, who is undefeated in four career starts on grass, Ward has one of the major contenders in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. The QEII is one of three annual Grade 1 races at Keeneland, along with the Blue Grass and Spinster Stakes.

Ward believes that Snow Dance has a solid chance to prevail, although like so many other trainers with horses in the QEII, he is extremely impressed by the depth of the race. Voodoo Dancer, Green Apples, Affluent, and several other notables are part of a terrific field.

"This might not only be the premier turf race for 3-year-old fillies in this country, but in any country," he said. "It's that tough."

Snow Dance, owned by John Oxley, has been something of a surprise this year. When she won her turf debut, an entry-level allowance at Churchill in July, it was "only because I didn't think she was strong enough to win at that level on the dirt," said Ward. "The great thing about her is how she has improved every race since then."

Indeed, Snow Dance, by Forest Wildcat, reeled off victories in an allowance race and the Grade 2 Lake Placid at Saratoga, then the Grade 3 Pucker Up at Arlington, bringing her to the QEII. Although she tends to show brilliant speed, she won the Pucker Up from off the pace, showcasing a new dimension.

"It's fair to say she belongs here," said Ward. "She's been running her last three-eighths in pretty respectable fractions, which she'll obviously have to do to win Saturday. The good thing about her is she doesn't have to do it from the back of the pack."