ROAD TO THE TRIPLE CROWN
APRIL 19, 2006
by James Scully
One race went according to script and the other turned into a shocker. LAWYER RON (Langfuhr) posted another convincing victory at Oaklawn, taking the Arkansas Derby (G2) by 2 3/4 lengths to solidify his status as the likely second favorite in the Kentucky Derby (G1). SINISTER MINISTER (Old Trieste) preceded him with a remarkable performance at Keeneland, surprising us more by the scope of his 12 3/4-length decision than by his upset of three highly regarded rivals in the Blue Grass S. (G1), and established himself as a front-running threat at Churchill for Bob Baffert.
The Arkansas Derby began in similar fashion to the Rebel S. (G3) four weeks earlier, with Lawyer Ron getting shuffled back into fifth along the inside as the field entered the clubhouse turn, but the chestnut wasn't willing to rate patiently as he had done before. Instead, Lawyer Ron took off like a bull up the rail and had grabbed the lead by the time he reached the backstretch. Jockey John McKee tried his best to hold him, with his feet on the proverbial dashboard, but there was no stopping the headstrong colt. Lawyer Ron quickly opened up on a clear lead and slowed the pace down.
After running the opening half-mile in :46 2/5, Lawyer Ron completed the next quarter-mile in :24 2/5 and then practically slowed to a crawl with a quarter-mile in a near 27 seconds, turning what looked like a difficult situation when he raced into fast fractions into an easy setup that fell right into his lap. He cruised through the stretch much the best, finishing the final eighth of a mile in a moderate :13 3/5, and remained unbeaten on dirt, improving to seven for seven overall with his sixth consecutive victory. His only losses have come on turf or the chemically engineered Polytrack.
Lawyer Ron earned only a 81 BRIS Late Pace rating, but he did finally receive a triple-digit Speed rating (101) after registering only a 98 for the Rebel and 99 for the Southwest. He'll still bring lower Speed figures than many of his counterparts into the Kentucky Derby. The Bob Holthus trainee isn't a numbers horse and has been beating up on questionable company in Arkansas this year, but that doesn't mean we can dismiss him next time. Lawyer Ron is a win machine with terrific natural speed. If able to relax early, he could launch a strong middle move at Churchill that propels him to the front on the far turn. Last year, Giacomo (Holy Bull) earned only a 100 Speed rating and didn't finish fast. Lawyer Ron will attempt to get to the lead by the top of the stretch in the Kentucky Derby and hang on.
We will question the competition. PRIVATE VOW (Broken Vow), who appears at his best going a mile or 8 1/2 furlongs, tracked Lawyer Ron in second most of the way but was out of gas by midstretch. He still managed to finish about 10 lengths better than fourth. Runner-up STEPPENWOLFER (Aptitude) was the only member of the field to run a step from off the pace, and the Dan Peitz-trained gray probably deserves extra credit considering the soft middle fractions up front. A maiden winner four starts back, Steppenwolfer closed fast to finish three-quarters of a length behind Lawyer Ron in the Southwest S. He may have regressed a little when third in the Rebel, but he rebounded with an improved showing Saturday. The fact that he's never earned a triple-digit Speed rating doesn't bode well for his win chances, but Steppenwolfer did reel off three straight 100+ Late Pace ratings this year while racing behind mostly slow fractions. He'll finally get a legitimate pace to run at in Louisville, Kentucky.
Austin Powers may be Baffert's favorite character from the movies, but the silver-haired conditioner played the part of Dr. Evil in the Blue Grass with the devilishly named Sinister Minister. Most of the pre-race focus fell upon STRONG CONTENDER (Maria's Mon), BLUEGRASS CAT (Storm Cat) and FIRST SAMURAI (Giant's Causeway), but they were all overmatched against the dominant front runner.
It's difficult to gauge his performance. Time-wise, Sinister Minister was amazing. He sprinted to the lead from post 7, clearing the field and opening a two-length advantage on the rail through an opening quarter-mile in :22 4/5. The gap grew to seven lengths after a half-mile in :45 4/5, and his three-quarters split of 1:09 4/5 was only two-fifths of a second off the six-furlong split established by the super-quick Kazoo (Tabasco Cat) in the seven-furlong Commonwealth Breeders' Cup S. (G2) one race earlier. Kazoo is a six-furlong specialist who ran as fast as he could under extreme pressure. Sinister Minister still had three furlongs left to run on a daylight lead and saved plenty for the finish. He covered his final three-eighths in a very respectable 39 seconds, extending his margin through the stretch while being kept to his task. His phenomenal exploits netted him a 116 BRIS Speed and a 103 Late Pace rating.
How many more comparisons to War Emblem will we hear over the next three weeks? I don't have a problem with it, but don't leave Wild Syn out of the equation. Granted, Sinister Minister appears to have more going for him than the latter, who never won another race after a wire-to-wire upset of Thunder Gulch (won Derby and Belmont [G1]), Tejano Run (Derby runner-up) and Suave Prospect (Belmont runner-up) in the 1995 Blue Grass, but Wild Syn had to mix it up on a blistering Kentucky Derby pace that went in :22 2/5 and :45 4/5 before fading. War Emblem, who displayed dismal form before emerging as a top three-year-old with a smashing 6 1/4-length win in the 2002 Illinois Derby (G2), wasn't aided by the biased Keeneland track in his final prep and set uncontested Kentucky Derby fractions in :23 1/5 and :47 en route to victory. With the speedball Sharp Humor (Distorted Humor), Brother Derek (Benchmark) and others in this year's field, Sinister Minister appears to be facing a pace scenario much more similar to Wild Syn's, not War Emblem's.
Had he turned in this performance anywhere else, Sinister Minister would look much more dangerous at Churchill. However, it was no secret that he could be lone speed at Keeneland and savvy horse players bet him down to 8-1 despite owning only a maiden claiming victory. In his previous start, he began to tire turning for home in the 1 1/16-mile California Derby and slammed into the inner rail. Revisionist history will claim those antics cost him the win, but Sinister Minister wasn't going to hold off Cause to Believe (Maria's Mon) under any circumstances that afternoon. He was rank and climbing early in the California Derby, and jockey Garrett Gomez was practically yanking his head sideways in the Blue Grass in an effort to slow him down before finally just letting him run on the backstretch. One probably can't understate how much the Keeneland strip benefited him on Saturday. Sinister Minister will own the best Speed rating in the Kentucky Derby field and will put a crimp into the other fast horses who want to go with him, but how's he going to carry his speed 10 furlongs?
It sets up an interesting choice for Gomez, who rides both Sinister Minister and Wood Memorial (G1) hero Bob and John (Seeking the Gold) for Baffert. The trainer also has Point Determined (Point Given) heading to the Kentucky Derby, and the Santa Anita Derby (G1) runner-up is, for my money, going to be the best of the lot at 1 1/4 miles. That remains to be seen, though, and anything looks possible in this year's event.
Baffert summed it up best following the Blue Grass, "It's a wide-open Derby."
The Lexington S. (G2) will provide three-year-olds with one final opportunity to garner enough graded earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field this weekend, and a couple of Florida Derby (G1) participants -- SUNRIVER (Saint Ballado) and SAM'S ACE (In Excess [Ire]) -- are listed among the possible starters. With the Florida Derby being poorly spotted five weeks out from the main event, the Lexington is the perfect spot to tighten them up for their best at Churchill. The unbeaten SHOWING UP (Strategic Mission) is also expected to run at Keeneland for trainer Barclay Tagg. Two for two in his career, Showing Up didn't make his career bow until February 11 and is unraced since March 11. His inexperience could catch up to him on Saturday.
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