3 horses with Md. ties are among deep field

Churchill dawns

Kentucky Derby

May 06, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

Louisville, Ky. -- It was still dark at 6 a.m. yesterday when trainer Michael Trombetta followed Sweetnorthernsaint to his final workout for today's 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby.

"You can't see much," said Trombetta as he leaned on the railing of a viewing box beside the track. "I'll know him when he comes through that lighted patch, because he'll be the only one with a pony."

As today approached, Trombetta has become more and more protective. He took the horse out to gallop, to stretch his legs and give him something to do, but besides his jockey he had a pony rider holding on to him to make sure nothing out of the ordinary happened. Then he returned him to his stall and lowered the blinds along the shedrow to make sure Sweetnorthernsaint got some rest. No one was taking pictures of him yesterday.

The Sweet, as he is called by his handlers, is one of three horses with Maryland connections in today's Derby that have outstanding chances to win. The others are Barbaro, trained by Michael Matz, who is based at Maryland's Fair Hill Training Center, and Point Determined, a Maryland-bred trained by Bob Baffert.

Matz and Trombetta are both Derby rookies and are taking a conservative approach about what might happen today, while Baffert, a three-time winner of the race, said Point Determined, like his other two entries in this Derby - Sinister Minister and Bob and John - "are sitting on ready, real ready."

When the starting gate opens at 6:04 this evening, 20 3-year-old horses will break and attempt to run 1 1/4 miles in a race considered by many to have the deepest field in decades.

"I've been watching this race since 1954," said trainer Barclay Tagg, who will send undefeated but lightly raced Showing Up to the post, "and this is the toughest Derby field I've ever seen in terms of the quality of horses."

Added John Shirreffs, who trains A.P. Warrior, "It's an all-star cast."

The big three in the field come with big stories.

Morning-line favorite Brother Derek is trained by Dan Hendricks, who works from a wheelchair since being paralyzed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident two years ago, and is ridden by jockey Alex Solis, back riding after recovering from a broken back that he feared would end his career.

Lawyer Ron, co-No. 2 choice with Barbaro, is trained by Bob Holthus, 71, who is searching for his first Derby victory in a career that covers 56 years. The horse has also been a rallying point for the Jim Hines family since the owner's sudden death in an apparent drowning accident in the indoor pool at his home Feb. 21.

And Barbaro, a perfect 5-for-5, is trained by former Olympic silver-medal winning show jumper Michael Matz, who is using an unusual game plan to get his horse to the winner's circle and the celebratory blanket of red roses. Barbaro is attempting to become the first horse in 50 years to win the Derby off five weeks of rest.

But each of them, as well as the other 17 in the field, will face their own special circumstances. Brother Derek and Lawyer Ron will have to overcome the 18th and 17th starting posts, respectively, while Barbaro (8) and Sweetnorthernsaint (11) have to avoid interference out of the gate and be within six or seven lengths of the speed horses, like Sinister Minister, going into the first turn.

"There are no answers to what's going to happen before the race," Matz said. "But I hope we'll be in the middle group stalking. And we all have the same worry. No one knows how they're going to react in a 20-horse field."

Baffert said he likes the chances of all three of his horses, but stipulates, "Each of them has to get a good trip. You don't know what's going to happen. You do know there will be so much bumping and grinding [out of the gate and heading for the first turn] that they might as well throw in some jumps in between."

Hendricks is hoping Brother Derek can hook up with Lawyer Ron on the outside and make a run toward the inside before the first turn.

"Yeah," Holthus said. "There are things you'd like to see - you don't want to get caught six-wide in the turn, but you have to wait until the gate opens - then the jockeys decide."

Everyone hopes the jockeys don't all decide to hold their horses back early.

"But you never know," Tagg said. "Trainers tell their jockeys totally different things just before they send them out in this race."

Holthus said, however, he believes there are enough speed horses involved to keep the racing honest.

"I don't think you'll see a half in 48," he said, waving off the idea of a slow race. "I don't think anyone will steal it. That's what you fear, that they'll let someone gallop out there in 48 seconds, but I don't think that is going to happen."

Slow-starting closers Jazil and Steppenwolfer could burst into the lead just before the finish.

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