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Apr 14, 2006

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


They are running the Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. The last two run nings of the Arkansas Derby have been won by colts named Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex. So you know it's a big race.

How big?

The American Broadcasting Company will present the race live and in color - unless baseball or tennis preempt it. And they are sending their A team, headed by Hammerin Henry Goldberg, to cover it.

I don't want to make any predictions until I hear Henry's take. But since I've been hanging out at Oaklawn since mid-January, I have a pretty good feel of what's going on.

Back in January, I wrote in this space about a colt named Lawyer Ron, and why you should get down before the price goes down. He was 50-1 at the time. Now he's second choice at 8-1 in the Churchill Derby futures, the second choice behind an overrated California colt named Brother Derek, and, after he wins the Arkansas Derby, he'll be no better than 3-1 on Kentucky Derby day.

Hopefully, I won't let all the money I will make in the Vegas futures on Lawyer Ron turn me into a gentleman of leisure, and discourage me from entertaining and informing my readers about what's going on in the world of fun and games.

That reminds me.

I just read that a basketball player for the Seattle whatevers was fined a day's pay because he was arrested for driving drunk.

The fine: $92,000!

Actually, that's not so fine.

In fact, it makes me sick to the stomach.

But back to the Arkansas Derby.

There will be 13 horses entered on Wednesday, and since not a single one of them is a Grade One winner (and only three have won any kind of a graded stake), the experts are going to say this is a mincemeat race.

But that's not the case at all.

You have Lukas in the race. You have Pletcher in the race. You have Asmussen in the race. You have Van Berg in the race. You even have New Joysey Jeff in the race.

But, most of all, you have Lawyer Ron.

Lawyer Ron may not be Smarty Jones, but he's the next best thing. He looks like Smarty Jones, he runs like Smarty Jones, he's known tragedy in his life like Smarty Jones, and he works :59 bullets like Smarty Jones.

And just like I made a pest of myself back in '04 hanging out at Smarty Jones' barn at Oaklawn Park, this year I'm making a pest of myself at the Bob Holthus barn, where Lawyer Ron is quartered.

And when Lawyer Ron worked that :59 bullet last Saturday, there were maybe 15 people watching. I turned to Holthus, and said to him: "Next time Lawyer Ron works, there will be 5,000 people watching him, including 500 or so media folks."

Bob nodded in agreement.

Incidentally, the media mobs are going to love the people around Smarty Jones. Trainer Holthus is a gold mine for information. His wife Bonnie is drop-dead gorgeous, and the brains of the family. The groom Chuck is one sharp dude who loves to make a score. And exercise rider Betsy is a knockout, who is under orders (from me) not to address the media until lunch. She needs to gallop seven other horses daily besides Lawyer Ron.

On my way to see Lawyer Ron and friends this morning, I stopped off at the Lukas barn - and there he was. The man himself. Decked out in a Western cordoray jacket, the collar pulled up, and a huge black cowboy hat.

Damn it. How can you not like Wayne Lukas?

Now, I've had my problems with Wayne over the years, but we're good buds now, and we had a great conversation about people and places and the good old days.

Wayne is at Oaklawn to run Ex Caelis (Latin for "from the heavens") in Friday's Fantasy, and Simon Pure in Saturday's Derby. He loves Ex Caelis. He said she's just a notch below champ Folklore in talent, but warned she may be a tad short for the Fantasy since she hasn't run since the Breeders' Cup.

On paper, Simon Pure has no chance in the Derby. But how many times have we said that before about Lukas horses and got clobbered? All I can tell you is, when they show the post parade on TV, check out this horse. He's a son of super mare Life's Magic, and he looks the part.

Don't be surprised if Simon Pure turns out to be a big-time horse by Travers time.

But first the Arkansas Derby.

Lawyer Ron will be 3-5, but I'm not nearly as certain about him as I was about Smarty and Afleet Alex the last two years.

In the Rebel, Lawyer Ron saved all the ground from the one-hole, and then had to run only an eighth of a mile on the turn to win the race.

The draw on Wednesday is going to be super-critical. An outside post in a 13-horse field, with all the speed in there, can be devastating. You have to be a super horse - or at least Smarty Jones - to win from out there going two-turns at Oaklawn.

And even if Lawyer Ron draws inside or in the middle, he'll have to negotiate the traffic with a young rider, and that's not easy, especially when you have a big red bulls-eye on your back.

If there is a good price horse in the Derby, it would be Red Raymond, who, maybe not by coincidence, is also trained by Holthus.

I watched Red Raymond breeze last Saturday, two hours after Lawyer Ron, and it was an adventure.

Two horses broke out in front of Red Raymond, and jockey Quinonez had to navigate up and around them while trying to throttle his colt's speed.

Red Raymond went flying past those two horses, both stakes horses, and he looked awfully good doing so. This guy needs to finish in the top three just to get to the Kentucky Derby, and I expect he will.

Finally, there were some new faces in the jocks' room this year at Oaklawn - and two who caught my eye are John Jacinto and Corey Lanerie. Jacinto is going on to Kentucky to ride for Lukas, and Lanerie is going to Lone Star.

Both these guys are worth playing. This I know.

Whatever happens Saturday in the Arkansas Derby - and in the Blue Grass - the Kentucky Derby is coming up one of the most competitive in years.

And, since Brother Derek will be a very vulnerable favorite, this is going to be one of the best betting Derbys in years - although it will have to go some to approach the cold $62 exacta of Smarty and Lion Heart we gave out in '04.

And since most of the top contenders will have similar stalking styles, you know for sure it will be a jockeys' race.

Too bad Bill Hartack isn't around when you need him.



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