Going, going, going, gone!
Sinister Minister poured on the speed on a speed-favoring track and ran away with the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) Saturday at Keeneland, earning a May 6 trip to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Even though he broke in the air from the No. 7 post, the 8-1 shot was two lengths in front after a quarter mile, seven in front after a half-mile, and eight ahead at the stretch call. The son of Old Trieste galloped home, flashing under the wire with a 12 3/4-length advantage, the third-widest winning margin in 82 runnings of the Blue Grass. Only Arts and Letters' 15-length romp in 1969 and Alydar's 13-length stroll in 1978 were more commanding.
Sinister Minister's time for the 1 1/8 miles of 1:48.85 was the fastest since Millennium Wind clocked 1:48.32 in 2001.
"I was hoping he would really pour it on today, so it was pretty exciting," said winning trainer Bob Baffert. "He's a free-running horse, and you can't rate him. He just takes off fast. This horse, I just think he's waking up at the right time. I don't think Brother Derek can get in front of this guy; I don't think he wants to."
Storm Treasure, the second-longest shot in the field of nine 3-year-olds at 65-1, finished second, 4 1/2 lengths ahead of Strong Contender. Another four lengths back was favored Bluegrass Cat, bred and owned by WinStar Farm. First Samurai finished fifth.
Ridden by Garret Gomez, Sinister Minister rolled through the first quarter mile in :22.91 and ripped off a half in :45.88.
"We knew we were going to get the lead and, down the backside, he was really tugging," Baffert said. "When I saw :45, I went, 'Wow! He's really got to have some jet boosters. This could be ugly.' When he got to the quarter pole, I thought, 'Son of a gun, I'm going to win my first Bluegrass' because he was just getting in gear."
It also was the inaugural Blue Grass victory for Gomez and Sinister Minister's owners: Terry Lanni of the Lanni Family Trust, Ernie Moody of Mercedes Stables, and Bernie Schiappa.
Sinister Minister returned $19.40, $9.20, and $5.80. Storm Treasure paid $47.80 and $16 for second, with Strong Contender at $4.20 to show.
Sinister Minister's victory came a week after the Baffert-trained Bob and John captured the Wood Memorial (gr. I). They will join another Baffert charge, Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) runner-up Point Determined, as Kentucky Derby candidates.
The Blue Grass winner began the 2006 season running in a maiden claiming event in California for a $62,500 tag. He won by eight lengths and later was sold privately to his current owners. The bay colt then finished sixth in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) before taking second with an excuse in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, finishing four lengths behind Cause to Believe.
"His race up at Golden Gate was pretty impressive," Baffert said. "People didn't realize that he hit the rail about three or four times. He came back, and he's been working well. I was thinking Arkansas Derby (gr. II) or here (the Blue Grass) or the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II). Bernie said, 'Let's just take a shot and run him against the big boys'. I said, ' Let's see how he works.' I worked him, and Garrett worked him unbelievable. I called Bernie and said, 'Get ready.' "
Baffert declined to disclose Sinister Minister's purchase price, but said, "It was peanuts compared to what he did today."
Jeanne and Mike Owens bred Sinister Minister in Kentucky.
"We're excited," Mike Owens said. The Blue Grass victory wasn't a shock, he added, because Sinister Minister has "grown a lot and matured since we had him."
Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Bluegrass Cat, wouldn't commit his horse to the Kentucky Derby following the Blue Grass, but he didn't rule out a run for the roses, either.
"Any time you have a horse go that fast and look like he's trying to run off down the backside, it's kind of a freaky race," Pletcher said. "This clearly wasn't what we were looking for. You're always concerned when you run at Keeneland on this kind of track because this kind of thing can happen. I don't like to make any decisions right after the race. We need to digest how he comes out of it and see how he is. I do like the way my horse has trained at Churchill. I'll get with the WinStar guys in a week or so and figure it out."
Scott Blasi, an assistant to Storm Treasure's trainer, Steve Asmussen, indicated the colt has what it takes to be a Derby starter. "He is a nice horse," Blasi said. "He is improving with every race. He was made to run all day. He is a mile-and-a-quarter horse, and he'll stay the distance."
John Ward, the trainer of Strong Contender, was pleased with his colt's effort in only his third career start.
"You can't take anything from the winner," Ward said. "His connections played it the right way; they came to run. It's a speed bias, golden rail type of situation. My horse didn't get away (from the starting gate) the best of ways. He came through horses and around horses, and Edgar (Prado) committed him to try to chase down the speed. That's what cost him second was committing him to win the race. He got tired the last part of it, but he'll season up and be good."
Ward wasn't sure that a Derby start would be in the Strong Contender's future.
"I think he's going to come up a dollar short, and it might save him," said Ward of the graded earnings list that determines which horses get into the Derby field if more than 20 are entered. "The Preakness (gr. I) would be the next thing you would consider or you would consider a 'non-winners of two other than' to set him up for the rest of the season. He's just a big baby. He ran pretty hard. Three weeks is probably too quick to come back; five weeks might be the right time. We'll see how the fallout is between now and the Derby."
First Samurai's trainer, Frankie Brothers, waved off the media immediately after the Blue Grass, but jockey Rafael Bejarano raised doubts about the colt's ability to run the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
"I don't think he wants to go 1 1/8 miles," Bejarano said. "I think he's better at about a mile. He's going to be a nice horse. When I saw the horse on the front getting away, I thought he would stop, but he never did. I just could not catch the winner."
And neither could anyone else.
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