Kentucky Derby Trail: Madcap Minister Runs Amok
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 4/17/2006 3:56:55 PM
Last Updated: 4/19/2006 5:34:25 PM

With Blue Grass surprise, Sinister Minister adds new level of mystery to Derby puzzle.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Suddenly, all the fast horses in this year's Run for the Roses don't seem that fast anymore. With the sudden emergence on the Derby scene of the impetuous hothead Sinister Minister, the riders of the leading contenders will have to do something they're not use to -- stare at a horse's rear end.

The big question is, how close do they get to it, or better still, how close can they get to it? And there are even more questions. Do they go after Sinister Minister or wait for him to come back this time? After a 12 3/4-length victory and a 116 Beyer Speed Figure in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), can he come even remotely close to reproducing that effort, or will he 'bounce' to the moon coming back in three weeks? Was he merely a run-off who ran slower horses off their feet over a surface that had been notoriously speed-biased on most days or is he some freaky Spend a Buck-type horse who is just getting good? How will speed horses and stalkers like Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Sweetnorthernsaint, Barbaro, and Sharp Humor adjust to having a horse several lengths in front of them?

Sinister Minister ran in the Blue Grass as is if someone had given him a hotfoot, and there is no way to know if this is the same horse we're going to see May 6 in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The bottom line is that Sinister Minister has thrown a monkey wrench into an already baffling race. But this is the Derby, where anything can happen, and who knows how much of a factor Sinister Minister will be.

The Blue Grass requires little or no analysis. Visually and statistically, it was a freak show that made proven stakes horses like First Samurai and Bluegrass Cat, and the highly regarded Strong Contender, look mediocre. But none of those horses are mediocre, so the race must be considered an aberration. Not only did Sinister Minister continue to pour it on after setting blistering fractions, he never changed leads in the stretch and was continuously being smacked left-handed by Garrett Gomez to keep him from ducking into the rail again. Although it appears he'd be better off waiting the five weeks and pointing for the Preakness (gr. I), we all know that is not going to happen. So, we just have to accept his turbulent presence in the Derby and try to figure out what impact he will have on the race.

Another surprise in the Blue Grass was Little Cliff showing speed and racing in second, head and head with Bluegrass Cat. This horse needed a second-place finish to make it into the Derby, and it was thought he would take back and try to make a late run. But 65-1 shot Storm Treasure ran the race Little Cliff was supposed to, and as a result, he likely will make it to the Derby gate. Strong Contender ran well considering the odd nature of the race and a poor start, in which he was squeezed back, losing position early. He simply was not ready for this kind of test with only two career starts, an ambitious travel schedule, and not having raced since Feb. 22. But he will be heard from.

First Samurai is off the Derby trail, but Bluegrass Cat probably will go on to Louisville, despite his 20-length drubbing. He looks as if he's particular about his tracks, and the only hope is that he takes more of a liking to Churchill Downs, where he has been training for the past several weeks. He, like the others, was thrown out of his game plan and never was able to recover, dropping out of contention at the three-eighths pole.

More raves for Runnin' Ron

Thankfully, the Arkansas Derby provided a return to normalcy. Lawyer Ron, despite racing at least once every month for the past 10 months, keeps right on rolling. With each race he becomes more and more of a phenomenon. What makes him even more fascinating is that he seems to know exactly where he wants to be in a race. When he's sitting outside of horses and in the clear he can rate kindly, as he did in the Risen Star (gr. III) and Rebel Stakes (gr. III). In the Arkansas Derby, he found himself in a precarious position stuck down on the inside in tight quarters. When jockey John McKee nudged him to get him clear of Jealous Profit, who had him pinned down on the rail, Lawyer Ron promptly took off and dragged McKee out of there and right to the lead.

Once he got to the front, he shifted into his cruising mode, and that, for all intents and purposes, was the race. Yes, he came home slow and the final time was slow, but the Oaklawn surface once again was dead, as it's been all meet, especially in distance races, and horses were crawling home all day. All you had to do was look at the fluidity and extension of Lawyer Ron's stride in the final eighth to realize this was not a tired horse. If you watch his last six victories you will see that exact same stride in every one of them. And he changes leads so smoothly you can barely see him do it.

This horse simply is a running machine that is starting to look more and more like a throwback to the days when horses were tough as nails and ran for the pure joy of it. One of these days the screws are going to have to start loosening, but right now there's no sign of that happening.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the Arkansas Derby was seeing Steppenwolfer close for second and earn a well-deserved spot in the Kentucky Derby field. Now that he has the graded earnings to get in, he will be dangerous. He has proven to be the most consistent closer of any 3-year-old on this year's Derby trail, and it's no disgrace to be beaten by Lawyer Ron. But watch out for this horse at 1 1/4 miles. It will be a totally different scenario, and there will be no horse in the Derby field with a better 10-furlong pedigree.

The son of Aptitude made a strong steady run from 11th before running into traffic at the five-sixteenths pole. Once he found clear sailing he bounded away from the pack and took off after Lawyer Ron and Private Vow, having only to catch the latter to assure his place in the Derby. Lawyer Ron, as usual, was not to be caught, but Steppenwolfer charged by Private Vow to finish a clear second by 1 1/2 lengths. Despite the 13-horse field, Private Vow finished 7 1/4 lengths ahead of the fourth-place finisher. This was a case of the three classiest horses in the field displaying their dominance over the others.

Private Vow, as expected, made substantial progress from his 3-year-old debut in the Rebel, but probably still needs one more race before he's ready to peak. If you're going to be on a two-race schedule before the Kentucky Derby you had better get a lot out of both races. Private Vow was a dead-short horse in the Rebel and did not get enough out of the race. He showed a great deal of improvement in the Arkansas Derby, and was much smoother, keeping his head down this time and relaxing. He should continue to improve at Churchill Downs, but there is a major question whether he's wound tight enough for a race like the Derby off these two starts. He could very well run a good race, but watch out for him in the Preakness.

Fourth-place finisher Simon Pure has a bright future, but it's been too much too quickly for the son of Silver Deputy. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas put him on a crash course to get to the Derby, and while he's still not ready for that kind of test, there were a lot of positives. He settled off the pace for the first time, lost some ground on the turns and just got tired. With only $50,000 in graded earnings, it's a blessing he likely won't make it into the Derby field. His best races are down the road.

In other Derby news:

-- The five horses in the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby who were coming off the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park – With a City, Seaside Retreat, High Cotton, Sadler's Trick, and Superfly -- were beaten a total of 170 lengths.

-- Lane's End (gr. II) winner With a City was knocked off stride at the break and wasn't persevered with after he lost touch with the field. He scoped clean afterward and will head to Churchill for the Derby.

-- Bob Baffert is in good shape for the Derby with three talented horses. But there is one rival that concerns his wife, Jill, who pointed out to her husband that when jockey Kent Desormeaux won his two Kentucky Derbys, aboard Real Quiet and Fusaichi Pegasus, he was wearing red and yellow silks each time. This year, when Desormeaux rides Sweetnorthernsaint, he will be wearing red and yellow silks.

-- If there was any question how A. P. Warrior came out of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), it was answered Monday when the son of A.P. Indy breezed seven furlongs in 1:27 2/5. As he did with Giacomo, trainer John Shirreffs is trying to make sure the colt's mindset is distance, which is why he worked him seven furlongs nine days after the Santa Anita Derby. He realizes he has to have a tough horse on May 6 who is ready mentally and physically to go 1 1/4 miles. Shirreffs, on his pony, caught A. P. Warrior going the first half in :52 and change, which means he came home his last three-eighths in around :35.

-- Ron Anderson, agent for Garrett Gomez, who has ridden Bob and John, Point Determined, and Sinister Minister, said his choice in the Derby is Bob and John, and that he is excited about the colt's chances.

-- Angel Cordero Jr., agent for John Velazquez, who had his choice among several Derby hopefuls a month ago, said he will ride Bluegrass Cat in the Derby.

-- Baffert said he has not made up his mind when he will ship Bob and John and Point Determined to Louisville. Baffert in the past has always been one of the first to arrive in Kentucky, but he may change his schedule this year and come later. Sinister Minister has already been sent to Churchill Downs.

-- Todd Pletcher must decide whether to enter Sunriver in Saturday's Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) or roll the dice and hope he makes it into the Derby field. Pletcher would prefer training the full-brother to Ashado -- who has had five straight 1 1/8-mile races -- up to the Derby off a five-week rest. So does he stick with the plan he feels is best for the horse and hope for the best, or does he concentrate more on just getting in the race and, again, hope for the best? The Lexington could give Sunriver the sharpening he needs, but on the other hand, if he's sitting on a career best race, he could peak a race too early. Oh, the dilemmas of the Derby trail.

Of those ahead of him in graded earnings, Discreet Cat's status is still uncertain, Like Now runs in the Lexington, and Flashy Bull and Mister Triester likely will run in the Derby if they get in. Sunriver, currently sitting at No. 23 on the earnings list, needs three of those horses to come out, with no one passing him from the Lexington. If Seaside Retreat runs off his sound defeat in the Blue Grass, he'll need four to come out.

When was the last time the Kentucky Derby field had four major prep winners who were all former claimers? In this year's running, the winners of the Arkansas Derby (Lawyer Ron), Blue Grass Stakes (Sinister Minister), Illinois Derby (Sweetnorthernsaint), and Tampa Bay Derby (Deputy Glitters) all ran for a price.

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