03/22/2006 1:00AM

Polytrack the unknown variable

Bill Denver / EQUI-PHOTOS
Strong Contender (left), at Gulfstream Park on Sunday, runs in Saturday's Lane's End.

When the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes is run on Saturday at Turfway Park, it will mark the biggest race to date on the artificial Polytrack surface. Polytrack has been warmly received by trainers who race and train over it, and trainer John Ward Jr. cited it this week as one of the reasons he is sending his unbeaten colt Strong Contender to Turfway for his stakes debut.

But when the race is said and done, what will it all mean? Every other prep for the Kentucky Derby will be run on a conventional dirt surface. And while the dirt at Santa Anita or Gulfstream might not be exactly the same as it is at Churchill Downs, it is at least closer to Churchill's surface than Polytrack. So, can the results of the Lane's End be interpreted as if the race were run on dirt when evaluating Derby contenders, or is that folly?

"That's a good question," Ward said on a national teleconference this week. "I'll let you know after the race."

At the least, both Ward and trainer Patrick Biancone, who has had runners stabled at Turfway all winter, say they believe that horses who run well in the Lane's End will prove they have the stamina to handle a distance.

"A miler will not win the Lane's End on Polytrack," said Biancone, who is expected to send out recent allowance winner In a Flash in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End. "I have been there all winter. At some tracks, a sprinter can carry his speed a mile. A miler might be able to steal the Santa Anita Derby. Not on Polytrack. A horse needs distance in his legs. You cannot steal it. You need to have a horse who really stays the trip."

You also need a horse who likes the surface. Lawyer Ron, who won last week's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, has won five straight races and now ranks as one of the leading contenders for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. Yet if one were to evaluate him solely off his Polytrack form, he would be dismissed. Lawyer Ron ran at Turfway twice last fall. He was second against maiden claimers and fifth against maidens, with a high Beyer Speed Figure of just 55.

Strong Contender has never raced on Polytrack - his two races have been at Arlington Park and Gulfstream - but he did train on it last year on Keeneland's training track before being sold as a 2-year-old to owner John Oxley. So, Ward said he has some degree of confidence that Strong Contender will adjust to the surface. The Lane's End will be his first start around two turns.

"The times I saw him go on it, he went very well," said Ward, who was to send Strong Contender from Florida to Turfway by van on Wednesday night. "I think it's a plus for us. There were a number of reasons we decided on this race. He has performed well on Polytrack. The timing of the race is good in case we need another race before the Derby. The big, sweeping turns should help. And I'll get an animal who comes back as sound as he went out."

Ward said Polytrack "tends to dull speed just a touch."

"You can't sprint away," he said. "It helps a horse with a big, long stride, a horse with a lot of cadence who tends to open up with his stride. This race will point out stamina. Whoever runs well will be able to run a mile and a quarter. And we won't degrade our horse's physical condition. We're looking at longevity."

Ward won the Kentucky Derby in 2001 with Monarchos, who, like Strong Contender, is a son of Maria's Mon.

"Physically, there's no similarity between them whatsoever," Ward said. "Monarchos was a medium-sized, compact colt. Strong Contender is lanky, long-striding. What they have in common is that it's amazing how deep they are in stamina."

Monarchos was much farther along at this point in his Derby preparation, having already won the Florida Derby, run that year in mid-March. But Strong Contender, Ward said, has all the tools. As the only member of the Derby Watch's top 25 scheduled to run in the Lane's End, he is expected to be the favorite.

"My gut is telling me we've got a pretty special animal here," said Ward.

In other Derby developments:

* Corinthian, who was disqualified from victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, is off the Derby trail after suffering a small fracture. Achilles of Troy, who like Corinthian had been expected to make his next start in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 8 at Aqueduct, will now be pointed to the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 15, according to Ernie Paragallo, who manages his family's Paraneck Stable. Achilles of Troy was vanned from the track following the Gotham Stakes on Saturday.

* In addition to the Lane's End, the only other stakes race of significance this weekend is the United Arab Emirates Derby at Nad Al Sheba. It will be run on Saturday night in Dubai, which is nine hours ahead of Eastern time in the United States. Derby Watch member Discreet Cat, who has won both his starts, is the favorite in the race.

- additional reporting by David Grening