03/23/2006 1:00AM

Strong Contender left out of Lane's End


FLORENCE, Ky. - Strong Contender, the unbeaten colt who figured to be the favorite in the 35th Lane's End Stakes on Saturday at Turfway Park, was excluded from the race when 12 other 3-year-olds with higher earnings were entered Thursday.

Strong Contender, whose victories in an Arlington maiden race and Gulfstream allowance have netted him $36,000, was 13th on the earnings list for the Lane's End, which is limited to 12 starters and does not carry a provision for an also-eligibles list. Trainer John T. Ward Jr. said he did not want to enter Strong Contender in the Rushaway Stakes, also for 3-year-olds, on the Lane's End undercard and that Strong Contender would return to Gulfstream Park this weekend to resume training, most likely with the April 8 Wood Memorial as his next start.

"The Rushaway isn't graded, so that doesn't help me," said Ward.

Strong Contender was on a horse van Thursday morning, when Ward was notified of the situation by the Turfway racing office. Strong Contender departed south Florida on Wednesday afternoon for a van trip that typically takes about 20 hours to reach Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., where Ward has his primary base.

Ward, speaking from his Keeneland barn, said Thursday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern: "I was able to divert the van to Lexington, and he's in the barn as we speak. [Friday] I'll put him right back on the van for Gulfstream."

Ward has not ruled out running Strong Contender next Saturday in the Florida Derby, but said it is "more than likely we'll run him in the Wood. You've always got to have a Plan B in this game, and that's what we're having to deal with right now."

Ward conceded that because Strong Contender has no graded earnings, a campaign to make the field for the May 6 Kentucky Derby probably has become "a one-shot deal." Whenever entries for the Derby surpass 20 horses, the criteria for inclusion is graded earnings.

"Whatever happens, we're going to do what's right by the horse," said Ward, who won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos.

The exclusion of Strong Contender was the result of several factors. Laity, on the fence all week, was entered in the Lane's End instead of the Rushaway. Nick Zito, whom Turfway officials had been expecting to enter one horse at most, announced in mid-week that he would run both Superfly and Hemingway's Key. And D. Wayne Lukas entered Sharp Attack, an earner of $63,419, in lieu of Special Interest, the horse Turfway officials had been saying Lukas intended to enter. Special Interest is a maiden with earnings of $21,900.

Edgar Prado, who was to have ridden Strong Contender, has picked up the mount on the Nick Zito-trained Hemingway's Key, displacing Jesus Castanon, who was named at entry time.