04/19/2006 12:00AM

Another Derby that's up for grabs


PHILADELPHIA - You can count on certain truths during the run-up to the Triple Crown. One is that more than a few of the top contenders won't make it, usually because of injury.

It looked like more of the same when 2-year-old champion Stevie Wonderboy was declared out of the Triple Crown right after his only start of 2006. But really that was it.

All of the other serious contenders made it through. Now, we have a Kentucky Derby with much intrigue and far too many potential outcomes for anybody trying to make money to feel comfortable.

Book this. Between now and May 6, you will hear that this Derby is filled with early speed. The Derby jockeys will hear it too. It was exactly what we heard four years ago at this time. I did not see it then. I do not see it now.

What we do have are a lot of quality horses that run near the pace, but not necessarily on the pace. Many of the best horses fell onto the lead in the prep races, but the Derby is decidedly not a prep race. This will be very different.

And if the jockeys hear enough times how much early speed is in this race, you can be sure they won't ride too aggressively. It is human nature. It happened exactly like that in 2002, a year after a hot Derby pace sucked any horse near that pace right out of the race. The following year, all the jockeys rode tentatively and War Emblem's jockey, Victor Espinoza, found himself loose on the lead in moderate fractions. You know how that ended.

And you remember how last year's Derby played out. It was a repeat of 2001 with Giacomo playing the part of Monarchos. The pace was insane. The horses near the pace wilted in the stretch.

The jockeys will remember the 2005 Derby. They will all be trying to save something for the stretch. They won't want to go too soon.

Which brings us to Sinister Minister. Is this really War Emblem II? Or is this just a horse that got on the Keeneland highway and ran an off-the-charts 116 Beyer because of that?

You can either dismiss this horse as a Keeneland fluke or believe that he will do a War Emblem. I don't think there is much middle ground. Sinister Minister is probably a horse that will either win or be off the board. But you do have to think about him.

Lawyer Ron is absolutely the most fascinating horse in the race. The horse runs up front, from the back, or, as he did in the Arkansas Derby, passes half the field around the first turn to get the lead. His Beyers do not appear to be good enough, but your eyes tell you there is something more there.

John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones, has a very good set of eyes. He has been watching Lawyer Ron all year at Oaklawn Park.

"I think he's a beast," Servis said. "He reminds me of Smarty Jones."

After Servis watched Brother Derek dominate the Santa Anita Derby on April 8, a colleague marveled at how impressed he was with the race. He wanted to know if Servis was as impressed.

"Not really," Servis told him. "Did you watch Lawyer Ron work this morning? That was impressive."

If there is a concern with Lawyer Ron, it has to be that the colt is so competitive that if he sees daylight, he just wants to go for it. To win the Derby, Lawyer Ron probably needs to be covered up for a good part of the race so that his explosive speed can be dealt out when the time is right. The pace scenario may work out perfectly because there really should be enough pace to keep Lawyer Ron away from the first flight of horses.

It is really hard to say anything bad about Brother Derek, Sweetnorthernsaint, Lawyer Ron, or Barbaro. And I won't try. Any of them could win the Derby.

Sinister Minister is really a faith horse. You could pick him and look really stupid when he checks in 20th. Or, if he's five lengths in front midway down the backstretch, as the horse with the best pre-Derby Beyer, you could be a minute from making a score.

This Derby will not be easy. Is it ever?