Lawyer Ron continued on the road to the Kentucky Derby with a victory in the Southwest Stakes.

Lawyer Ron continued on the road to the Kentucky Derby with a victory in the Southwest Stakes.

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography

Kentucky Derby Trail: Lawyer Ron Makes His Case

Lawyer Ron took another step forward with his victory in Saturday's Southwest Stakes, extending his winning streak to four. But he still left a major question unanswered. Despite the lack of stakes action last week, there were several horses around the country who stepped up and made people take notice.

There is no doubt now that Lawyer Ron is a flat-out runner. He didn't need to win by a pole again to show off his talents, and we probably learned more about him from his three-quarters of a length margin than we did from his previous three runaway victories. You never know how a horse is going to react when he's tested by a good horse for the first time, and by digging in and holding off the late charge of Steppenwolfer, he showed he can rise to the occasion. He never looked to be in any danger of getting caught, and in fact, Steppenwolfer was not gaining on him at all in the final yards. Although the final time was a slow 1:40, it should be noted that the fastest mile time of the meet has been 1:38 4/5.

With that said, seeing him go hell-bent-for-leather for the lead was not the kind of scenario one would hope for when looking for a horse capable of winning this year's Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) on May 6. The son of Langfuhr  appeared determined to get to the front, despite the presence of some quick horses. Perhaps it was a combination of the six-week layoff and the one-week postponement due to a frozen track. And perhaps this race will take the edge off him and he'll be able to settle off the lead as he did in the Risen Star (gr. III).

With jockey John McKee sitting up over his neck, it appeared as if his saddle had slipped, which wouldn't have come as a surprise the way he rocketed to the lead. But down the backstretch you could see McKee's back go from a 45-degree angle to a horizontal position, indicating he had more control of the colt. Lawyer Ron will get a stiffer test in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) on March 18, and if he passes that one, and is able to harness some of that raw speed, then we can start seriously thinking Derby.

One horse with whom we can start seriously thinking Derby right now is Steppenwolfer, who is progressing beautifully and improving with every race for trainer Dan Peitz. The son of Aptitude looks to have all the tools. He's bred to run all day and possesses a powerful kick that he can use anywhere during a race. He was forced to go four-wide turning for home, and after switching leads smoothly, he made a couple of runs at Lawyer Ron, but simply wasn't sharp enough at a mile against a brilliant horse who had been on an unchallenged lead for most of the race.

Lawyer Ron's stablemate, Red Raymond, who had not run since finishing fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), closed well to be third, and his pedigree also suggests he'll be better at longer distances. He already has a victory in the Ellis Juvenile and a third in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) to his credit.

Don't get down on Music School for tiring late and losing third in the final yards. This was a tough spot for the inexperienced colt, who had only an allowance win since last June. He was supposed to run in another allowance race last Thursday, but the race didn't fill, forcing trainer Neil Howard to put him in the Southwest just to get some seasoning and experience. The son of A.P. Indy looked like he was going to be a factor when he split horses on the turn and moved into contention, but just got tired. This race should help move him forward.

Unlikely trio

In past years, trainers looking for an easy spot for their 3-year-olds would point for group III races like the Rebel Stakes, Gotham, and Tampa Bay Derby. While the Rebel has on occasion lured some serious Derby horses, the Gotham and Tampa Bay Derby were usually easy pickins for a top colt.

This year, with all three being run March 18, it would seem like an ideal situation for trainers to choose which race would be the easiest for their horse.

Well, that's far from the case. Many trainers with top Derby contenders this year have decided to avoid Gulfstream's bombardment of 1 1/8-miles and are evacuating South Florida. As of now, Private Vow, one of last year's top 2-year-olds, is heading for the Rebel, along with the brilliant undefeated Hutcheson (gr. II) winner Keyed Entry. Undecided between the Rebel and the Gotham are exciting allowance winners Strong Contender and Barbican. They will face a formidable challenge when they tackle a strong local contingent made up of Lawyer Ron, Steppenwolfer, Red Raymond, Music School, and Well Said.

Not that the Gotham is going to be much easier. Achilles of Troy, who has demolished his opposition in the Count Fleet and Whirlaway Stakes, is staying in the Big Apple instead of shipping to Florida for the March 4 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) as originally planned. The son of Notebook will square off against Maryland sensation Sweetnorthernsaint, who has left his opponents floundering up the track in his last three races. Both horses have already turned in some heavy duty speed figures. If either Strong Contender or Barbican, or both, opts for the Gotham, that is going to be by far the best 3-year-old stakes ever run over Aqueduct's inner track. Even Keyed Entry could show up if Todd Pletcher decides to head north instead of hooking Lawyer Ron.

With so many good horses pointing for these two races, that would leave the Tampa Bay Derby as the place to go for an easy race, right? Hardly. All you have in that race is Bluegrass Cat, winner of his last four races, and the top gun in Pletcher's powerful arsenal. The son of Storm Cat will face Deputy Glitters, who finished a game second to Bluegrass Cat in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Nick Zito likely will give Little Cliff and Hesanoldsalt another shot after their disappointing efforts in the Davis, and you have the impressive maiden winner Harborage, who crushed his field going 1 1/16 miles in his first try over the tricky Tampa Bay surface.

There are still plenty of good 3-year-olds left for the Fountain of Youth, but the big question is how many will stick around for the Florida Derby (gr. I), which will be using its $1-million pot to entice trainers to go into the Derby off a five-week layoff.

Although the Fountain of Youth likely will be a competitive race, with several promising colts looking to break out and stamp themselves as leading Derby contenders, it is possible the only graded stakes winner in the field will be First Samurai. Included among the flock of potential Derby horses pointing for the Fountain of Youth are the stakes-placed Great Point, My Golden Song, Flashy Bull, Itsallboutthechase, and Rohoboth; minor grass stakes winner Can't Beat It; and first time stakes starters Corinthian and Jazil. Zito also will run Hemingway's Key, who won his first two starts before floundering in the slop in the Holy Bull.

He coulda been a contender

If only Strong Contender had one more start under him and didn't have to go into the Kentucky Derby off only four career races (you remember Exterminator, 1918). Like the other so-called jinxes, this one probably will be broken one day, but until it happens it still has to be considered an obstacle. After all, 88 years is a long time.

Jinxes aside, it is obvious after his impressive allowance score on Feb. 22 that Strong Contender is a gifted colt. But the question is, where does he go from here? Making his first start in six months, he bounded to the lead and when he was challenged from both sides by High Cotton and Big Lover, he turned it up a notch and went his second quarter in a blistering :22 flat. It was when Big Lover charged up on his inside during that second quarter that he got his blood up and threw in a :10 3/5 eighth. He still was able to go his next quarter in :23 3/5 before drawing off to a 5 1/2-length victory in 1:34 3/5 for the mile.

The son of Maria'sMon has a ton of stamina, being inbred three times to Ribot, but he's going to have to harness some of that early speed. He did in his career debut last year, when he sat back in fifth and charged to the lead at the head of the stretch with a five-wide move, so there's no reason to think he won't settle off the pace with this comeback race under his belt.

Runner-up Storm Treasure also ran a big race coming off a 7 1/4-length maiden score last November at Churchill Downs. Look for bigger and better things from this son of Storm Boot, who is inbred top and bottom to major stamina influence Round Table. He could join stablemate Private Vow to form a powerful one-two punch for trainer Steve Asmussen and owner Mike McCarty.

As for High Cotton, who showed good speed before dropping out of the race abruptly, he stumbled coming out of the gate and ran as if he lost his air. He did bleed a little and will try to bounce back in the March 25 Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park. The Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) at Turfway the same day will be the target for his stablemate Manchu Prince, who has never run on dirt, but has two powerful stretch-running victories on grass. Manchu Prince's only defeat came in the Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT), in which he had to steady going into the first turn and never did any running after that. The son of Gone West is bred more for the dirt, and his maternal granddam, Key to the Bridge, is a full-sister to Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, and Vosburgh (all grade I) winner Plugged Nickle.

Refinery ready to rumble

Welcome, Dick Mandella, back to the Derby trail. After a rough go in 2004 with B. Wayne Hughes' 2-year-old champion Action This Day, who suffered with back problems, Mandella and Hughes are on track to return to Churchill Downs with Refinery, an improving colt who appears ready to make his mark in stakes company.

On Saturday, Refinery, wearing blinkers for the first time, scored an impressive victory in a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita. Tracking the pace under Alex Solis, the son of Victory Gallop was in complete control all the way, and after turning back a challenge from the highly regarded Bob Baffert-trained colt, Record, he drew off to a 2 1/4-length victory in 1:36 3/5.

Mandella said he's looking at the San Felipe as his next start. Refinery looked to have a bright future when he beat Mister Triester (who came back and won big) by 4 1/4 lengths in a six-furlong maiden race, run in a solid 1:10 2/5. But when he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in allowance company, he finished a dull fourth. It was discovered one of his testicles was bothering him, so it was decided to have it removed. In his first start as a ridgling, he made a strong move around horses to reach contention, but couldn't sustain it, finishing third behind stablemate One Union and Point Determined.

Equipped with blinkers on Saturday, he did everything pretty much on his own down the stretch and ran like a seasoned pro. The most important thing is that he is moving in the right direction and should handle the longer distances with no problem, being by a Belmont (gr. I) winner, out of a mare by the distance-loving Slew o' Gold.

Runner-up New Joysey Jeff is another to keep an eye on. The son of Bright Launch has plenty of stamina in his female family and has closed consistently in all three of his races, including a solid third-place finish in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II).

Greeley's getting good

What was supposed to be Scanlon's Song's emergence as a serious 3-year-old instead became a huge step forward for the improving Greeley's Legacy, who blew by the 4-5 Scanlon's Song on the far turn and then swallowed up the rest of the field to score an impressive 5 1/2-length victory in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Aqueduct.

Greeley's Legacy, a son of Mister Greeley is an interesting colt in that he has tried just about every possible running style there is before turning into an explosive come-from-behind horse who can really motor around the far turn.

Two races back, he had a nightmare trip, getting squeezed down on the rail going into the first turn, and then having to steady slightly on the backstretch. He unleashed his big move on the turn and seemed on his way to victory when he got shoved out at the quarter pole and then was bumped soundly when he veered in at the three-sixteenths pole. He still looked like a winner in the stretch, but came in again and was hammered by the eventual winner, Trailing Twelve, this time losing his action and all his momentum.

In Saturday's race, he had clear sailing all the way and circled his field, charging to the front and opening a five-length lead at the eighth pole. He finished up under a hand ride in 1:44 1/5, getting his final sixteenth in a solid :06 2/5. Trained by George Weaver, he could have a say in the upcoming stakes at the Big A.

In other Derby news :

-- Doctor Decherd didn't exactly boost the form of the Aventura (which he won) and Holy Bull Stakes by finishing a distant eighth as the 6-5 favorite in Sunday's Borderland Derby at Sunland Park. The race was won by 9-1 shot Indy Wildcat, who was breaking his maiden in the race. Finishing a head back in second was Wait in Line, who had been beaten 11 lengths in the Turf Paradise Derby. Needless to say, this race will have no bearing on the Derby picture.

-- Dogwood Stable's Saint Augustus returned to his winning ways following a pair of poor efforts, leading every step of the way in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race Sunday to defeat the Nick Zito-trained Doc Cheney by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:50 3/5. Saint Augustus is yet another horse trainer Todd Pletcher will have juggle on the Derby trail.

-- Bob Baffert said he likely will run Wanna Runner in the Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II) on March 4 and may run three horses – Bob and John, Point of Impact, and Point Determined -- in the March 18 San Felipe (gr. II) before sending them in different directions for their final Derby prep.

-- The Santa Catalina will be headed by three-time graded stakes winner Brother Derek, who will try to take advantage of his big edge in experience and class when he faces recent maiden winners Latent Heat, Really Indian, Mister Triester, and grass horse Niagara Causeway. Wanna Runner is the only challenger at this point with stakes experience, having finished third behind Brother Derek and Stevie Wonderboy in the San Rafael Stakes (gr. II).

-- Point of Impact worked before the first race Sunday in company with Sort it Out, and according to Baffert, he looked good until he passed Sort it Out, and then he was "galloping down the lane on his left lead and looking into the grandstand." With all that he still worked six furlongs in 1:10 4/5, while Sort it Out went in 1:12 1/5. When this horse gets his head straightened out, who knows what's going to emerge? It's obvious he has tremendous talent.

--Steve Asmussen is starting to get serious with Private Vow, who had his second six-furlong work at Palm Meadows Monday, going in 1:14 2/5.

-- Barbican had his first work since suffering from an ulcer on his epiglottis, going a half in :48 at Palm Meadows, the second-fastest of 21 at the distance.