04/12/2006 11:00PM

It's a must win for 'Contender'


NEW YORK - The final round of major preps for the Kentucky Derby tops Saturday's national stakes schedule, with the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Also at Keeneland are two other Grade 2 stakes events, the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup and the Jenny Wiley, while the feature at Aqueduct is the Grade 2 Comely Stakes.

Blue Grass Stakes

While the Arkansas Derby looks chalky to me - despite not scaring anyone away, heavy favorite Lawyer Ron will be very tough to beat - the first two favorites in the Blue Grass have issues that would make value-conscious bettors try and beat them. First Samurai, the morning-line and probable post-time favorite, had an easy trip last time out in the Fountain of Youth, in his first attempt at two turns, which should have resulted in an open-lengths victory. Instead, he needed a disqualification to get the money, making even his admirers wonder if he is as effective going long. Bluegrass Cat, who figures to be a strong second choice in the wagering, failed at 2-5 last time out in the Tampa Bay Derby, and has yet to show meaningful development from age 2 to 3.

I'm going with Strong Contender. Strong Contender was visually impressive crushing a strong allowance field in his only start this year, and there is every reason to believe he can do substantially better. This will be only his third career start, so a big step forward is certainly plausible, and the betting is that he will blossom stretching out to two turns. He also figures to sit a nice trip. Sinister Minister is likely to go to the front, with First Samurai prompting him. Strong Contender should be a stalking third early, perhaps just ahead of Bluegrass Cat.

Another thing to think about in the Blue Grass is the matter of intent. No one is suggesting that First Samurai and Bluegrass Cat won't be trying to win. But the real goal is the Kentucky Derby, and it is unlikely they will be asked to empty the tank three weeks before the big day, especially since they already have sufficient graded earnings to guarantee a starting spot in the Derby. Strong Contender has no graded earnings, and only a win or a second on Saturday will ensure he has enough to secure his spot in the Derby.

Jenny Wiley Stakes

Wend is certainly a deserving favorite. In her only start over the course last fall, she was a strong second to Intercontinental, who came back to upset the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf and clinch a divisional Eclipse Award. But in winning the Honey Fox in her first start this year, Wend was forced to work very hard. The only other time in her career that Wend was as hard pressed, it knocked her off form in her next start.

Is that a reach? Maybe. But I like Asi Siempre. After finishing second in the strongly run Garden City Breeders' Cup last September, Asi Siempre won both of her starts on the Keeneland turf course last fall, including the Valley View Stakes, in which she made a sustained run from well off the pace. She has not raced since, but her trainer, Patrick Biancone, has a high rate of success winning with horses off such layoffs.

Northern Spur Breeders' Cup Stakes

This race is something of a consolation prize for 3-year-olds on Oaklawn's Arkansas Derby undercard, and High Adventure is the bet to keep his winning streak going.

High Adventure has won both of his starts at the Oaklawn meet, and looked particularly good last time out, unleashing a strong run through the final furlong to blow past the strongly bet leader and score going away. Both of High Adventure's Oaklawn wins were at six furlongs. But this two-turn mile looks to be well within his scope, and there should be plenty of pace for him to shoot at.


Oaklawn Park: Northern Spur B.C. Stakes
3-year-olds, 1 mile

Approximate post: Eastern-3:23 p.m., Central-2:23 p.m., Mountain-1:23 p.m., Pacific-12:23 p.m.; Hot Springs, Ar., forecast: Breezy, 85¦

1Happy Birthday7483-10-1
2El Nino9074638-1
3Kings Challenge7585855-1
4High Adventure8683566-1
5Garbu Road78775112-1
6Admiral's Arch8584844-1
7R's Star80777815-1
9Mr. Pursuit8786739-2
10Hallowed Flag82746712-1

Track morning line odds

Keeneland: Jenny Wiley Stakes
Fillies and mares, 4 and up, 1 1/16 miles, turf

Approximate post: E-4:15 p.m., C-3:15 p.m., M-2:15 p.m., P-1:15 p.m.; Lexington, Ky., forecast: Chance of thunderstorms, 80¦

3Ambitious Cat9296948-1
4Cape Hope81838315-1
6Asi Siempre95951014-1
7Miss Mambo8979n/a10-1

Track morning line odds

Keeneland: blue grass stakes
3-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles

Approximate post: E-5:21 p.m., C-4:21 p.m., M-3:21 p.m., P-2:21 p.m.; Lexington, Ky., forecast: Chance of thunderstorms, 80¦

1Little Cliff93865910-1
2Bluegrass Cat9996955-2
3Storm Treasure73858815-1
4Strong Contender9472-4-1
5First Samurai94107988-5
6Court Folly91878412-1
7Sinister Minister915810215-1
8Sadler's Trick76819115-1
9Seaside Retreat89757915-1

Track morning line odds