- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In most sports, speed kills — in a good way.

But at the Kentucky Derby, speed kills in a bad way. Except possibly this year.

A race that traditionally has set up the horse who is held back at the start and makes one, big run to pass his wilting competition could feature a different makeup Saturday at Churchill Downs.

This year’s group of speed horses is not only high in number, but impressive in quality.

The top four projected favorites — Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Barbaro and the Laurel-based Sweetnorthernsaint — have all shown the ability to lead from start to finish, or at least press the pace from the beginning.

Throw in quick-starters like Sinister Minister, Bob and John, Bluegrass Cat and Keyed Entry, and things will be both exciting (for the fans) and dicey (for the trainers who have questions whether their colts can make the mile-and-a-quarter).

But knowing that only 22 horses in the 131-year history of the Derby, and only one since 1989, have won gate to wire, trainers of the favorites don’t necessarily want the lead.

“If we have a crazy pace up front, I’d feel a little better if he was a little further back but close enough to where he doesn’t have to chase and make up a lot of ground,” Sweetnorthernsaint trainer Mike Trombetta said.

Lawyer Ron trainer Bob Holthus: “It will depend almost entirely on who wants to really get the lead. My preference would be five or six lengths off the lead and tucked in around the first turn to save some ground.”

Brother Derek trainer Dan Hendricks: “Last year, [Spanish Chestnut] went out there really, really fast and early. That’s just silly.”

A horse is labeled a “speed” runner because, basically, they don’t mess around. They go right to the front.

Six of the Derby’s competitors have won races gate to wire this year, including Brother Derek three times and Lawyer Ron twice. Barbaro never has run lower than second in his last three wins. Sweetnorthernsaint has one gate-to-wire win and was second before winning the Illinois Derby by more than nine lengths.

That quartet likely will be chasing Sinister Minister, who blew away the Blue Grass field by nearly 13 lengths. Sharp Humor will challenge him.

Some things are a given at the Derby: The infield will be packed with intoxicated college students, B-list celebrities will wear gaudy hats, a millions of dollars will be wagered and, once the race starts, the early leaders will wilt when it counts.

In the last 10 years, the leaders with a half-mile left have an average finish of 11.1. The average place of the 10 eventual winners with a half-mile left is 7.5.

Translation: The horses that don’t blow their stack early have a better chance of winning. Last year, Giacomo was 18th in a 20-horse field with a half-mile left, but passed seven horses in the next quarter-mile and six horses down the stretch to win by a half-length.

Recent history, though, shows that early speed is having more success.

War Emblem (2002) is the only horse since 1989 to lead gate-to-wire. Smarty Jones was second and Funny Cide third with a half-mile left in 2004 and 2003, respectively.

The number of speed horses has trainers of the closer-type runners excited.

Jazil has closed from ninth to second and 11th to second in his career. But he has only one win. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is hoping for opening suicidal fractions — anything less than 23 seconds for the first quarter-mile and 45 seconds for the opening half-mile — that will compromise the front-runners.

“There’s a lot of speed and a lot of horses will be backing up when he makes his run,” he said. “But you still need the trip. He’s got to get by 19 horses and that takes some luck.

“He’ll be last or next-to-last for awhile. Then we hope he can make h is way through traffic in the stretch. He’s got a great style for a race with this many speed horses.”

The amount of speed and potential for a closer to steal the race has prompted trainer Mark Casse to enter Seaside Retreat, who hasn’t won in 2006.

“That’s why he’s here,” Casse said. “I know he’s a long shot in there. But the key for us are all the other horses that will be running fast early. If the race didn’t set up like it does, we wouldn’t be here.”

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