02/23/2006 1:00AM

Strong Contender's huge win could mean he'll ship for stakes

Bill Denver/EquiPhotos
Strong Contender makes his case for Derby contention last Wednesday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, trainer John Ward said he thought in the long run it might be better if Strong Contender didn't win the first-level allowance race that he was using for the colt's 3-year-old debut later that afternoon.

"I'd like to bring him back in another allowance race before putting him in against stakes company, and there's probably very little chance a two-other-than is going to fill around here," said Ward. "At least if he's still eligible for a one-other-than next month I know that race will go."

Six hours later, after Strong Contender had stamped himself a legitimate Kentucky Derby prospect by thoroughly trouncing a talented group of 3-year-olds, the chances of a two-other-than allowance race filling for the grand-looking colt became even more remote.

Strong Contender, a son of Maria's Mon, led throughout under jockey Edgar Prado before pulling away to a decisive 4 3/4-length victory in a field that included runner-up Storm Treasure and the graded stakes-placed High Cotton. His final time of 1:34.67 earned Strong Contender a 94 Beyer Speed Figure. The outing was the first for Strong Contender since he captured his debut at Arlington Park on Aug. 12.

"The best part about his race was that when Edgar reached back and got him in the last eighth he laid down again," said Ward, referring to the way Strong Contender drew away from his competition through the final furlong.

Strong Contender is owned by John Oxley, with whom Ward teamed to win the Kentucky Derby with another son of Maria's Mon, Monarchos, in 2001. Monarchos used the Grade 1 Florida Derby as a stepping-stone to his Kentucky Derby victory, but Strong Contender is not likely to travel that same path.

"It would be wonderful if we can stay here and run in a condition race next," Ward said. "If not, the Rebel in Arkansas or the Gotham in New York would be the two likeliest options."

Todd Pletcher reported that High Cotton, who was eased to the wire as the 7-5 favorite in Wednesday's main event, "bled a little" after the race.

"It was enough to give him an excuse but not enough to stop on him," said Pletcher.

High Cotton was making his first start since finishing second to Private Vow in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26.

"We'll just regroup, but it's a bad time of year to have anything negative happen with a good 3-year-old," said Pletcher.

Motion's turf stars in light training

Trainer Graham Motion reported that Better Talk Now and Film Maker are both back in training at Palm Meadows but said neither would be ready to run at this meet.

Better Talk Now won the 2004 Breeders' Cup Turf but finished seventh in defense of his title last year. He has not started since finishing 12th in the Japan Cup on Nov. 27. Film Maker has finished second and third in the last two runnings of the BC Filly and Mare Turf. She was given a break after concluding her 2005 campaign with an easy win in Calder's Grade 2 La Prevoyante Handicap on Dec. 17.

"Both horses have been galloping on a regular basis, but it's not likely either of them will be ready to run until early May," said Motion.

Court Folly targets Swale

Trainer Ian Wilkes, who has already won six races here this meet, said he plans to start Court Folly in the Grade 2 Swale Stakes on March 4. Court Folly has won two of his last four starts, including a first-level allowance race from off the pace on Jan. 27.

"He might not be able to handle those horses but he deserves the chance and this will give us a chance to see where we're at with him," said Wilkes. "I know with his running style he's at a bit of a disadvantage over this track. I'm just looking for as much speed as I can get to go in that race so he can try to run them down from behind."