- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ted Theos wasn’t in New Kent County, Va., last July when the horse he thought could be special made his debut … by throwing a fit before the race and finishing 12th in a 14-horse field, beaten by 24 lengths on the turf.

“Thank God I wasn’t there,” Theos said with a laugh. “If I had been and you asked me if we would have made it here, I would have said, ‘No way.’ ”

“Here” was the Churchill Downs backstretch earlier this week, a dozen feet away from Sweetnorthernsaint’s stall. In less than a year, the colt owned by Theos and Joseph Balsamo has been gelded to eliminate pre-race theatrics, moved to the dirt, changed trainers from Leo Azpurua to Michael Trombetta and won three of six starts.

Now he has advanced from a Colonial Downs’ $26,000 maiden race to today’s $2 million Kentucky Derby.

“I always knew he was a nice horse,” Theos said.

Sweetnorthernsaint — 10-1 on the morning line — will start from the No. 11 post position and has a chance to become a special horse.

Brother Derek, 6-for-8 lifetime, is the morning line favorite but will have to work quickly from his No. 18 post position.

“He’s a really good horse, but he still has to prove he’s a special horse,” trainer Dan Hendricks said. “One of these horses will step up Saturday and become special. And that’s a label that should be reserved for those who have proved it.”

The 20-horse field features as much talent and speed as any in recent years, which make the event harder than usual to handicap.

“I’m as confused as everybody else,” Steppenwolfer trainer Danny Peitz said.

Said Barbaro trainer Michael Matz: “It’s pretty open. And that’s the great thing about this race. Nobody knows how their horse will react in a 20-horse field. There could be some surprises.”

Giacomo was the surprise winner last year at 50-1. A long shot winner today would be an even greater surprise. That’s how much respect the top horses in this field have garnered throughout the winter and spring.

Sweetnorthernsaint wasn’t one of those horses until last month, when he posted a 91/4-length win in the Illinois Derby.

Following the train wreck at Colonial Downs 14 months ago, Sweetnorthernsaint was gelded and sent back to the farm. He returned to action Dec. 21 at Laurel Park and won by 16 lengths although he was disqualified and placed third. That was a $40,000 claiming race so any owner could have had the colt beforehand.

“I always knew he wasn’t a claimer,” Theos said. “That was my call. I put him over there. I didn’t think anybody would claim him for that price. I felt he needed to get his confidence back and win like he was supposed to win.”

Still, immediately after the race, Trombetta called the racing office just to double check. Lawyer Ron also ran in a claiming race last year, so it’s not unprecedented.

“We didn’t know he was quite the athlete he is,” Trombetta said. “He had one horrible race on his form so we could run him a little more aggressively, and we were fairly certain we would be fine doing it.”

Sweetnorthernsaint never returned to the claiming ranks. He recorded his first official win Jan. 7 at Aqueduct, followed that with a win at Laurel, a third at Aqueduct in the Gotham and the Illinois Derby victory.

Trombetta is confident Sweetnorthernsaint can handle the mile-and-a-quarter.

“I like how easily he’s been able to do what he’s done so far,” he said. “He’s only had to work a hard a couple times, and he’s come a long way in a short period of time.”

Of some concern, though, was Sweetnorthernsaint’s 11/4-mile gallop Wednesday, which didn’t measure up to his workout last Saturday.

But this is the Derby, so every trainer has concerns.

Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron and Barbaro are the top favorites. All have gaudy records — a combined 10-for-10 this year. Brother Derek and Lawyer Ron are front-running horses, causing questions whether they can be relaxed enough to save energy for the extra furlong. Barbaro hasn’t run in five weeks, and no horse with a five-week layoff has won the Derby in 50 years.

The relaxation issue is foremost on the trainers’ minds this week. Those with stalkers and closers want the first half-mile to be a complete fiasco with a traffic jam at the lead. They’re convinced the leaders will run a 47-second opening half-mile but collapse at the top of the stretch. Only 22 of the 131 Derby winners have led from gate to wire.

Expected to be near the front going into the first turn are Sinister Minister, Sharp Humor and Keyed Entry. Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron and Barbaro could be among the second group.

Sweetnorthernsaint figures to be mid-pack with the likes of Point Determined and A.P. Warrior. The best closer is Steppenwolfer.

“With all those speed horses, who will be able to get their horse to relax?” Peitz said. “One of those 10 horses that have been right up on the lead will have to relax enough to finish. I have no idea who’s going to be able to do that.”

The horse that gets the right pace and is steered through the right openings by his jockey will earn his owner a first prize worth $1.453 million.

If it’s Sweetnorthernsaint, it would create even greater interest in the May 20 Preakness, with the Maryland horse running at home.

“I can’t even describe how sweet that would be,” Trombetta said. “It’s been nice to win a major prep race like the Illinois Derby, and the Kentucky Derby is the race everybody aspires to. But I’ve been watching the Preakness the last 20 years from the bleachers.”

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