Lawyer Ron faces next test in Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes.

Lawyer Ron faces next test in Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes.

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography

Kentucky Derby Trail: Change is in the Air

If you're tired of the same old cast of characters that have been playing the major roles so far, you're going to love next weekend's mixed bag of stakes races. After Saturday, many questions will be answered, and don't be surprised to see some new, exciting faces take center stage on the Triple Crown trail.

But first, this is what we have to look forward to regarding the major players. We'll find out how Keyed Entry handles two turns in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III). We'll find out if Lawyer Ron and Achilles of Troy are for real when they take on top-class horses in the Rebel (gr. III) and Gotham, respectively. We'll see if Bluegrass Cat can escape what looks to be an easy spot in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) and holds his place among the division leaders. We'll finally get to see the 2006 version of Private Vow when he makes his belated 3-year-old debut in the Rebel. We'll see if Bob and John can take that next step up in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II). We'll know if the late-closingSteppenwolfer is a force to be reckoned with. And we'll find out if the once-heralded A.P. Warrior can return to his 2-year-old form under new trainer John Shirreffs.

But it is possible that some of the names we'll be talking about on Sunday will be promising, but unproven, 3-year-olds such as Refinery, Sweetnorthernsaint, Point of Impact, Point Determined, Racketeer, Music School, Hesanoldsalt, New Joysey Jeff, Greeley's Legacy, Well Said, Little Cliff, Storm Treasure, Deputy Glitters, and Simon Pure.

Next weekend also will go a long way in determining the Derby status of such noted trainers as Bob Baffert, Nick Zito, Steve Asmussen, Dick Mandella, Bobby Frankel, and D. Wayne Lukas --all of whom need big efforts to continue on to Louisville with a legitimate contender.

So far this year, Todd Pletcher -- with Bluegrass Cat, Keyed Entry, and My Golden Song -- is the only high-profile trainer with a proven arsenal of Triple Crown contenders. Pletcher also has Sunriver, Saint Augustus and a few others waiting in the wings. Another trainer with more than one contender is Frank Brothers, who trains stakes winners First Samurai and Laity.

Many of the top-ranked horses with solid stakes credentials this year are trained by Dan Hendricks (Brother Derek), Bob Holthus (Lawyer Ron and Red Raymond), Michael Matz (Barbaro), Frank Amonte/Jennifer Pedersen (Achilles of Troy), Dan Peitz (Steppenwolfer), Dave Hofmans (Sacred Light), Jimmy Jerkens (Corinthian), Kiaran McLaughlin (Flashy Bull), and Jerry Hollendorfer (Cause to Believe).

With low-profile trainers Barclay Tagg, John Servis, and John Shirreffs winning the last the three Derbys, this year will help determine if we're seeing a new trend developing following the era of Derby dominators Lukas, Baffert, and Zito, and other big-name trainers who have won the Run for the Roses, such as Charlie Whittingham, Neil Drysdale, and John Ward.

A Cause worth following

If there is one horse on this year's Derby trail that will remain shrouded in mystery right up until the first Saturday in May, it is Cause to Believe, winner of Saturday's California Derby (gr. III). If the son of Maria's Mon should add the Illinois Derby (gr. II) to his impressive local scores in the California Derby and El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), or even finish a late-closing second, he will head to Churchill Downs with a glowing resume and a reputation for consistency unmatched by his peers.

But he will also have a big question mark hanging over his head, and that is because no one will have a clue how good he is. By taking the low road to Louisville, he will be unproven against top-quality horses, unless something extraordinary shows up at Hawthorne on April 8. Timing-wise, he is on a great schedule, one that all but assures him a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1).

But not knowing how good a horse is has no relevance to whether or not he will win the Derby. If he's the best 3-year-old in the country and no one knows it until May 6, all the power to his connections for making sure he gets there one way or the other.

Even Cause to Believe's California Derby victory has questions surrounding it, only because the horse he blew by in the stretch – Sinister Minister -- decided to go one-on-one with the rail at the three-sixteenths pole. For no apparent reason, the Bob Baffert-trained colt ducked in and slammed against the rail three times after opening a commanding six-length lead nearing the head of the stretch. Prior to that, he had set scorching fractions of :22, :45 1/5, and 1:09, running everyone but the trailing Cause to Believe into the ground.

It must be said, however, that Cause to Believe was rolling when Sinister Minister ducked in, and it looked as if he would have caught him at some point, although the margin likely would not have been four lengths. Sinister Minister did gather himself and was full of run at the wire, galloping out strongly. The most important aspect of Cause to Believe's performance was the run he put in from the half-mile pole to the eighth pole, taking the lead after a mile in 1:34 2/5. And his 1 1/16 miles in 1:41 is fast, no matter how you look at it.

But all this means little in determining how good this horse really is. Although he hasn't defeated any Derby-caliber horses, he goes out there every time and runs his race, and he has a beautiful way of moving. You can't fault his record of six wins and three seconds from nine starts, and you certainly have to admire him for his consistency and versatility. He's been first or second at six different distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, and he always runs fast times. In addition to his 1:41 in the Cal Derby, he won the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows in 1:41 4/5, was second in the six-furlong San Miguel at Santa Anita in 1:08 4/5, won the six-furlong Mill Valley Stakes at Golden Gate in 1:09 1/5, and won the Cavonnier Juvenile at Santa Rosa in 1:03 3/5.

Maria's Mon has already sired a Kentucky Derby winner, who ran the second-fastest Derby in history, and Cause to Believe's female family has a good cross of speed and stamina. His maternal great-granddam, Stellarette, is a half-sister to the dam of top-class stayer Swain, and his fourth dam, Square Angel, is by Belmont (gr. I) winner Quadrangle.

Showing up too late

Oh, if only Showing Up had another start or two under him. Trained by Barclay Tagg, the son of Strategic Mission won his second career start at Gulfstream Saturday to remain undefeated. And in doing so, he broke the track record for a mile, winning on the lead most of the way in 1:34 flat. He not only beat a classy field, he showed tremendous courage, turning back three challenges from three different horses.

Just when it looked as if he had been softened up by the fast fractions and the hotly contested pace, he put it in another gear when challenged on his inside by the highly regarded Chatain, an impressive maiden winner first time out. He turned back his third challenge and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths, while coming home his final quarter in :24 1/5. It was another six lengths back to Flanders Fields in third.

This was one of the most impressive performances seen all year at Gulfstream, right up there with Strong Contender's allowance victory two weeks ago and his own maiden score Feb. 11, in which he came from off the pace to win by four lengths in a quick 1:15 3/5 for 6 1/2 furlongs.

This is an exciting colt, who will now head up to New York for the Wood Memorial (gr. I). Unfortunately, that is going to be only his third career start, and it is asking an awful lot of a horse to try to win the Kentucky Derby off only three starts. Even the Wood is an ambitious step. But he no doubt will be a major presence in the race.

No concerns with Corinthian

The following long-winded comments about Corinthian are the result of a slow weekend on the Derby trail, and are not intended to be some Dr. Phil equine analysis.

With that said, having watched Corinthian's last three races several times, there are several conclusions that could lead one to believe the son of Pulpit will be a major factor on the first Saturday in May despite the self-destructive behavior he's demonstrated in his last three races, one of which cost him a grade II victory and much-needed earnings and another that caused him to be scratched at the gate. Although there is trepidation in his camp and among his supporters, the feeling here is that we'll see a different horse on Derby Day.

That statement may seem to go against all logic and reason. But Corinthian has been the most impressive two-turn horse seen at Gulfstream this winter, and he certainly looked as if he would have won the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) by open lengths had he not tossed it all away with his antics.

In his last three starts, Corinthian has run like a true professional until he came alongside a horse on his inside in the stretch. Had he continued a straight course, he would have won all three races with authority. But instead, he drifted in toward those horses and began leaning on them. This is similar to his behavior before a race when he tries to mount the pony. It is apparent his problem is other horses, rather than simple immaturity. Despite being ornery and obstinate going to the gate in the Fountain of Youth, forcing Javier Castellano to dismount, once he was led to the gate by an assistant starter he walked right in with no problem. It wasn't until a horse came in the gate next to him that he acted up again, causing Castellano to dismount for the second time. Although blinkers would seem to help, trainer Jimmy Jerkens is reluctant to use them, because one of the colt's attributes is the way he rates so beautifully.

So, why won't this behavior compromise his chances on Derby Day in front of 150,000 people? Because people have nothing to do with his problem, just as people had nothing to do with Fusaichi Pegasus' often unstable behavior. What a mass of people and a full field of 20 horses could do, as they did with Fusaichi Pegasus, is distract Corinthian and help keep him focused on other things. Other than Wheelaway's harsh reaction to a right-handed whip in 2001, you never see horses run erratically in the stretch of the Derby. The reason for that could be that there is so much noise, so much traffic, and so much to occupy them they don't have the opportunity to do the same things they would do on another day.

What one has to like about Corinthian is the fact that he's made the same big move at the same spot in his last three races, and has a female family that shouts stamina. Also, it was apparent watching the Fountain of Youth that Corinthian was never going to be passed and, in fact, was starting to inch away again. He went from the three-eighths pole to the eighth pole in an excellent :23 3/5, and would have come home his final eighth faster than :13 and run faster than 1:49 (neither of which is that bad) had he kept a straight course and not started goofing off once he got to the lead.

In his maiden win at Aqueduct, he was running perfectly straight out in the middle of the track until he came alongside the leader, at which point he lugged in on him, as he did Jazil in an allowance race and First Samurai in the Fountain of Youth. Castellano should be prepared for that now, and should have his whip in his left hand, ready to catch the problem before it snowballs, just as Gary Stevens had to with Point Given, who had a tendency to lug in as soon as he straightened for home.

The truth is, no one really knows what to expect from Corinthian on Derby Day, but there is no question about his talent, and that in the end could very well overcome his other issues.

Pedersen, Paragallo part

Achilles of Troy will have a new official trainer for next Saturday's Gotham Stakes (gr. II), with assistant Frank Amonte taking over for Jennifer Pedersen. It's a shame the often turbulent marriage between Pedersen and owner Ernie Paragallo finally ended for good. Paragallo has had a good deal of success since bursting on the racing and sales scene in the mid-'90s, regardless of who his trainer was.

There was Unbridled's Song, trained by Jim Ryerson, and Artax, trained Lou Albertrani and Randy Bradshaw. But since Pedersen took over, Paragallo has been an annual visitor to the Triple Crown trail, winning the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) with New York Hero, the Lafayette Stakes (gr. III) with Griffinite, the Best Turn Stakes with Redskin Warrior and the Count Fleet and Whirlaway with Achilles of Troy.

Pedersen and Paragallo have finished second in the Illinois Derby (gr. II), Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), Battaglia Memorial, and Fred "Cappy" Capossela Stakes, and third in the Lexington. They also finished second in the Gotham (gr. III) with Pavo, who was disqualified when his saddle slipped, and were fourth in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and fifth in the Preakness (gr. I).

Pedersen broke Paragallo's yearlings for many years, and also broke eventual Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Sarava, who was sold by Paragallo. She is an astute horsewoman, with a great talent for developing young horses, and will be missed on the trail this year. She is looking to start a public stable, and will no doubt continue to be successful.

In the meantime, Achilles of Troy will get his first major test Saturday when he faces the brilliant speedsters Keyed Entry, Sweetnorthernsaint, and Like Now, as well as the late-running Greeley's Legacy.

In other Derby news:

-- The Arkansas Derby (gr. I) may have found a new starter when Sayhellotolarry won a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claimer by four lengths at Oaklawn Saturday. Trained by Harold Williams, the son of Victory Gallop was coming off a 6 1/4-length romp in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race and appears to be getting good at the right time.