09/20/2006 11:00PM

Strong Contender sitting on big effort


Strong Contender's best race was a seven-length rout of the Grade 2 Dwyer at Belmont Park in July. He did not duplicate the effort in his next and most recent start, when he finished third in the Grade 1 Haskell. But Strong Contender is giving his connections every indication he is set to run back to his Dwyer effort Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.

Strong Contender is a lightly raced, late foal who is just coming into his own. The Dwyer was only the fifth start of his career, and he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109 in that race. The victory made him one of the top choices in the Haskell at Monmouth on Aug. 6, when he encountered traffic and finished eight lengths behind winner Bluegrass Cat.

In the more than 1 1/2 months since, Strong Contender has blossomed, according to his trainer, John Ward Jr.

"He's developed quite a bit," said Ward. "He's a May 15 foal, and since that race he's really kind of matured a lot, and he's kind of changed his action, his way of moving. Big, young horses tend to have a lot of wasted action, and now he's gotten to be a pretty efficient horse in the morning. He's come a long way.

"That's what you see on late foals," he said. "When you're talking anywhere from 60 to 90 days age difference in the spring, that makes a lot of difference in maturity. So now, they all kind of catch up to one another in the fall, and that's what he's doing."

Strong Contender is a big horse who has gotten stouter, said Ward.

"He's broadened out across his back and his rear end," he said. "He hasn't gotten any taller. Usually, young horses develop their skeletal frame and then they fill it up with muscle. He's developed that way very, very well. He's gotten a lot broader in his chest. He's probably increased in muscle structure by maybe 10 to 15 percent."

Running in races has also helped Strong Contender come to hand, said his owner, John Oxley.

"He's really progressed with the experience that he's gained in the recent races, so we've been patient with him and think we have a really nice horse for Saturday," Oxley said. "And, of course, going beyond that and into next year as well, he should be a very nice handicap horse. I think he's just now getting close to his potential. I think he's definitely a potential Grade 1 winner."

Oxley purchased Strong Contender for a sales-topping $800,000 at Keeneland's 2-year-olds in training sale last April. Part of his appeal was his sire, Maria's Mon, who sired Monarchos, winner of the 2001 Kentucky Derby for Oxley and Ward.

The Dwyer win gave a glimpse of what Oxley saw in him at auction.

"It was a happy win, of course," he said. "I think you'll see that horse again on Saturday."

Louisborg leads locals in Super Derby

It is only fitting that Royce Roberts's third Super Derby starter, Louisborg, was bred up north, in Ontario, Canada, since Roberts himself has been a resident of Alaska for more than 40 years.

"I live southwest out of Anchorage about 65 miles, in a little town called Kenai," said Roberts. "It's right on the banks of the Kenai River."

Roberts has often given his horses names reflecting Alaska. There is Arctica, a five-time stakes winner of $302,492; Arctic Boy, the runner-up in the Grade 3 Rebel in 2001; and stakes winner Kenai Lake.

Roberts, who also has a home in Houston, acquired Louisborg as part of a group of horses he purchased in Texas. Louisborg has won 3 of 4 starts, most recently in the local prep for the Super Derby, the $100,000 Prelude. Louisborg is based at Roberts's showplace training center, Oak Leaf Farms, in Tyler, Tex., about 1 1/2 hours from Louisiana Downs.

"In this area, you've got three or four tracks you can work off from pretty easy without having to go too far," said Roberts.

The facility boasts a seven-furlong track, a new training barn, and a European exerciser, all on about 120 acres, said Tony Richey, who trains Louisborg. Roberts said last week he is working on licensing the facility for official workouts.

Louisborg has been one of the most impressive debut winners of the Louisiana Downs meet, closing from 20 lengths back to win a six-furlong maiden race June 10. He rallied from about 15 lengths back to win the 1 1/16-mile Prelude.

"A mile and an eighth should just suit him," said Roberts. "If it doesn't I'll be really surprised. It should just add to him the way he closes. By golly, that horse gets that far out of it and comes back."

Richey said he is hoping for an honest pace Saturday.

"You've got to have some pretty good fractions up there in front of him," he said. "And if it sets up for him, he's going to make his three-eighths of a mile run, and it's a big run."