05/17/2006 11:00PM

Peter Pan a Preakness preliminary

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes has long been a key stepping-stone to the Belmont Stakes for late developers. Traditionally situated two weeks before the Belmont, it was pushed back to three weeks out this year and as a result it will be run the same day as the Preakness, which makes it something akin to the preliminary bout before the main event.

Every one of the nine 3-year-olds in the Peter Pan is still eligible for the second-level allowance condition, and the lone stakes winner is Lewis Michael, who won the Grand Canyon Handicap on turf at Churchill Downs six months ago. Nevertheless, the field is an interesting one that contains Sunriver, who was excluded from the Kentucky Derby due to insufficient graded stakes earnings; Strong Contender, third in the Blue Grass as the co-second choice; and Really Indian, a colt by 1992 Peter Pan winner A.P. Indy who will be making just his second lifetime start.

Also in the field are Harborage, Hesanoldsalt, Ice N Lemon, Scanlon's Song, and Testimony. Testimony was a 7 1/2-length maiden winner in the slop at Belmont last fall, and runner-up to Discreet Cat in the $2 million UAE Derby in his last start.

, as they wonder why Neil Drysdale, considered among the most conservative of trainers, is shipping him across the country after he defeated maidens at Santa Anita nearly four months ago.

"It's a moon shot," said Drysdale, whose Peter Pan winners A.P. Indy and Sunday Break (2002) had far more experience, and left the gate as 1-2 shots. "It's like we're jumping him a condition."

That's true, because even though Sunriver and Strong Contender are the horses to beat, neither has won anything more than a first-level allowance.

However, Sunriver finished well for third while racing wide throughout in the Florida Derby behind Barbaro, and has trained well in the ensuing seven weeks.

"[Him] being a full brother to Ashado, we had high hopes for him from the beginning," said Todd Pletcher, who saddled Purge to win the 2004 Peter Pan six weeks after tangling with Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby. "I'd love to find a position where we can stalk [Strong Contender]."

Strong Contender was pinched at the break when Sinister Minister wired the Blue Grass, and made a middle move on the inside before flattening out in what was just his third career start.

"He got experience out of there and came back pretty well," said his trainer, John Ward, who won the Peter Pan in 2001 with Hero's Tribute.

In a field that lacks early speed, Strong Contender's wire-to-wire allowance win at Gulfstream in his first start this season points him out as the potential pacesetter.

"He's a very tactical horse, and he's got a lot of talent," said Ward. "If he runs good, we've got more plans for him."