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Three Year Olds Most Likely To Claim the Derby

Author: Greg Melikov

Several of the Kentucky Derby's top contenders were among six horses that ran in the claiming ranks at least once during their careers. All six, which won those races, rank no lower than 16th of the top 20 in graded stakes earnings guaranteed to start in the $2 million race. Do any have a real shot at claiming the 132nd Run for the Roses? You bet! For instance, Lawyer Ron, with John McKee aboard, has dominated opponents while convincingly winning six in a row. The son of Langfuhr captured a $50,000 optional claimer by 11 lengths last year at Louisiana Downs.

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Lawyer Ron's pedigree doesn't scream stamina, but he's done everything asked of him. He's following the same path as Smarty Jones, who smelled the roses in '04. Steppenwolfer, who chased Lawyer Ron home in all three preps at Oaklawn Park, finished third in a $50,000 optional claimer as a 2-year-old, but won another, both routs at Louisiana Downs. The son of Aptitude, settled in at Churchill Downs several weeks ago, is among closers that obviously will benefit from a hot pace on Saturday.

Unlike Lawyer Ron, who posted the third highest speed rating of top contenders in their last prep, according to, Steppenwolfer never earned a triple-digit speed figure.

The highest speed rating belongs to Sinister Minister, who sprinted to victory by eight lengths in a $62,500 maiden claimer earlier this year at Santa Anita. The son of Old Trieste ran away from the eight challengers in the Blue Grass Stakes, more than 12 lengths ahead of runner-up Storm Treasure.

The last winner of Keeneland's premier race to repeat at Churchill Downs was the sire of Bob and John -- Strike the Gold in '91. Trainer Bob Baffert decided the ride on Sinister Minister goes to Victor Espinoza, who guided the conditioner's War Emblem to a wire-to-wire victory in '02, after posting the second highest speed rating by Derby winners in preps since '90.

In Sinister Minister's case, however, there are at least two horses that will challenge for the lead from the start: Keyed Entry, pacesetter in the Wood Memorial that faded to third, and Sharp Humor, who led into the deep stretch until edged by Barbaro in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. The second highest speed figure in his last Derby prep belongs to Sweetnorthernsaint, who thrashed nine others in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne by more than nine lengths.

The son of Sweetsouthernsaint captured a $40,000 maiden claimer as a 2-year-old at Laurel. His close third in the Gotham Stakes was a game effort after traveling wide on both turns at Aqueduct after breaking from post 10. Deputy Glitters, who won a $50,000 maiden claimer last year at Saratoga, finished a distant sixth in the Wood Memorial after taking the Tampa Bay Derby. Garrett Gomez will ride Bob and John, another Baffert trainee that was victorious in the slop over the late-closing Jazil and fading Keyed Entry. The last Wood Memorial winner to repeat in Louisville was Fusaichi Pegasus in '00. Point Determined, who captured an $80,000 optional claimer at a mile on a wet, fast Golden Gate Fields surface, finished 3 ¼ lengths behind Brother Derek in the Santa Anita Derby.

Brother Derek, the early Derby favorite, won four stakes in a row. While the last winner to repeat at Churchill Downs was Sunday Silence in '89, six of the last dozen that hit the board visited the winner's circle. Here's how I see the order of finish in America's Race: Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek ran the fastest three furlongs of the six major preps. Sweetnorthernsaint posted 36 3/5, a tick faster than Brother Derek. In addition, both had reasonably good times for 1 1/8 miles, while Sweetnorthernsaint covered the last furlong fastest of all - 12 ¼.

Both recorded triple-digit speed figures in every outing this year. I favor Sweetnorthernsaint because, not only does he sit off the lead, but he exhibits the needed running style to triumph. His acceleration from the final turn into the stretch will mean victory, and two-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux in the saddle is a big plus. Brother Derek, with Alex Solis in the irons, will rate because of the likely fast
paced scenario. He has defeated several classy contenders from the West Coast: Bob and John, A. P. Warrior, and Point Determined.

For third, I like the forgotten horse, unbeaten Barbaro, winner of the Florida Derby, trying to become the first horse in a half-century since Needles to smell the roses after a five-week layoff. Trainer Michael Matz made sure the time off has been well spent, and Barbaro is training very well. I believe Lawyer Ron or Sinister Minister will finish fourth, but quite a few others could round out the superfecta. All in all, luck often plays a role when there's such a large field. Most important is a clean trip around the Churchill Downs oval. Let's hope the best horse does win.

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About the author: Contributing Writer