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Mar 03, 2006

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


In case you missed it, there were three meaningful developments on the Triple Crown trail over the past weekend.

  1. On Saturday, Lawyer Ron and Steppenwolfer finished one-two in the Southwest as Oaklawn Park.oh yes, as predicted in this space last Friday.
  2. On Monday, Private Vow worked six furlongs in 1:13 over the Palm Meadows track in south Florida.
  3. And a half-hour later, the unbeaten Keyed Entry breezed five-eighths in 1:00 over the same track.

Lawyer Ron and Steppenwolfer were and are one-two in my Kentucky Derby rankings. Private Vow is No. 1 in Steve Haskin's Derby Top Ten, and Keyed Entry is No. 1 in Bill Finley's Top Ten.

How else are these four horses linked?

Glad you asked.

All four plan to show up in the $300,000 Rebel Stakes on March 18 at Oaklawn Park. Hope you all get to join me on the Oaklawn roof that day. And, later of course, for all-you-can-eat crawfish for $24.99, and a shot or two at the Arlington.

Back to the Southwest.

I have mixed feelings about Lawyer Ron's performance.

Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives. The colt showed blazing speed early, he shook off several challenges, and he had enough gas left in the tank to hold off Steppenwolfer at the end. I don't think Steppenwolfer would have got by him if they went around again.

On the other hand, I hated to see jockey McKee resort to whacking Lawyer Ron 20 times right-handed from the quarter-pole home. No matter what spin you put on it, this is not a good thing.

That said, it seems clear to me that the Kentucky Derby winner is coming out of the Rebel -- unless Barbaro kicks butt in the Florida Derby.

An aside here:

None of the riders of these five horses have won the Kentucky Derby. Not that that's a bad thing. Neither did jockeys Santos, Elliott and Smith before 2003.

I called old buddy Steve Asmussen this morning, and asked him about the Southwest. I respect Steve's opinion because he never holds back. He tells it like it is. Even when he's wrong. For example, he told me a month before the '04 Derby that Smarty Jones had no chance.

Hey, we all make mistakes. But you don't get to be the No. 1 trainer in the world by making too many.

Anyway, here's what Steve said about the Southwest:

"The first two ran excellent races. My horse (Private Vow) will have a tall order in the Rebel."

Asmussen will be trying to do something that's been done only once in modern Derby history - that is to win the Derby with only two preps. In Private Vow's case, the preps will be the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby.

Meantime, I have surfed the internet for expert reactions to the Southwest, and I found that everyone missed the point, which is that a hopelessly outclassed first-time starter named Agrapha was the key to the whole race.

Agrapha, who wound up finishing last at 63-1, had post two in the Southwest, while Lawyer Ron, the 1-2 favorite, had post three.

Up to the Southwest, Lawyer Ron's style was to stalk the leaders, and make his winning move down the backstretch.

It stood to reason that would be the strategy for the Southwest, but trainer Holthus called an audible after looking at the post positions. He told jockey McKee to send Lawyer Ron.

  • "We wanted to get away from the field if we possibly could," Holthus told inquiring minds after the race, "so I told Johnny to send."
  • "The field" clearly meant Agrapha.
  • "You really never know what an inexperienced horse will do" Holthus told me, "so I thought it was best just to get out of his way."

Holthus' strategy turned the Southwest upside down.

Instead of being rated, like he had been before, Lawyer Ron went right to the top, and set himself up as the target.

And this is why I was so impressed by Lawyer Ron.

With the label "catch me" on the jock's back, everyone took his best shot at Lawyer Ron, and failed.

Lawyer Ron's final time of 1:40 for the mile looks slow on paper, but the racetrack was deadly dull, at least two-plus seconds off the norm. Urban Guy won the Mountain Valley earlier on the program with six furlongs in 1:12. On a normal day, he would have gone in nine and change.

The Beyer boys gave Lawyer Ron a 95, not bad, but a drop from Ron's 106 at Bossier.

The Southwest really reminded me a lot of the '04 renewal when Smarty Jones appeared

life and death to hold off the Asmussen-trained Two Down Automatic. Even the winning margin was the same - three-quarters of a length.

We know what Smarty did after that. Then again, Steppenwolfer is a lot more racehorse than Two Down Automatic.

The bottom line is that Lawyer Ron remains No. 1 in my Derby Top 10. But I'm still not thrilled that the jock saw the need to whack him 20 times.

As for the rest.

Red Raymond, who sucked up for third, looks to be the kind of horse who will earn his keep this year with seconds and thirds in big-money races.

Music School ran as well as could be expected in finishing fourth, and trainer Howard doesn't seem thrilled with the prospect of trying the top two again.

Mark of Success blew the start, made a run to reach contention, and stopped. He might do OK sprinting from outside posts, and Travelin Leroy came back with a lung infection.

Agrapha?

He will always be a footnote in racing history, but an important one if Lawyer Ron turns into Spend A Buck.

Thirty minutes after the Southwest, Bernie (our man) Flint reached a racing milestone by nailing his 3,000 th victory with More Than Pretty.

"I really have more than 3,000 winners," Bernie told me, ".but back in the old days they sometimes didn't keep such good records."

Before he trained 3,000 winners, Bernie Flint worked the mean streets of New Orleans as a cop before graduating to detective. He lived through Hurricane Betsy, and "a murder a night" for 16 years before taking his retirement, and turning to horse-training.

If you ever get the chance to run into Bernie Flint, he would be glad to stop what he's doing and talk shop - be it horses or cops. He doesn't pull any punches.

And his thought process about his 3,000th winner?

"I had five in Saturday," he told me, "so I was hoping to win one. Twenty per cent. That's about as good as it gets in this game."



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