04/26/2006 11:00PM

Gates open - drama begins

Lawyer Ron, one of the Kentucky Derby favorites, gallops on Thursday at Churchill Downs under Betsy Couch.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Arguably the best week of the racing calendar starts Saturday at Churchill Downs, where the Derby Trial and 13 other stakes will help build to a crescendo that culminates in the 132nd Kentucky Derby.

A 57-day spring meet will provide instant drama, since the $100,000 Trial figures to directly affect the composition of the Derby field. For Derby purposes, the central figures are Mister Triester and Dawn of War, both of whom could run back in the May 6 Derby - although the owners of both say extraordinary circumstances would have to prevail. Both colts already have enough graded earnings to make it into a 20-horse field.

B. Wayne Hughes, the owner of , admits to being caught up in the aura of Derby Week. He said Thursday that if his colt wins big in the Trial, "if I decide to run back in the Derby, it would be an emotional decision."

"I don't expect him to win big, but actually, I try not to think about it because I think you set yourself up for disappointment if you think that way," he said. "I really don't know what I'd do if we won."

Likewise, Ken Ramsey, the owner of , said Thursday that his homebred colt "would really have to run well, and even then I don't know. We probably wouldn't run back, but we're keeping all options open."

Mister Triester and Dawn of War are among nine 3-year-olds entered in the one-mile Trial, which no longer carries graded status after being downgraded following the 2004 running. Neither will be favored in the Trial; that role figures to go to Protagonus, Record, or Noonmark.

Clearly, the connections of Derby bubble horses such as Flashy Bull and Sunriver are hoping those favorites will dominate the Trial and eliminate a scenario that would shut them out.

, trained by Steve Asmussen, probably has the best credentials, having finished a close second to Sharp Humor in his last start, the March 4 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Asmussen, having regarded Noonmark as a sprinter-miler type, never held the colt's feet to the Derby fire, and brings him into the Trial off a sharp series of local works.

Protagonus and Record also bring fine form and very competitive Beyer Speed Figures to the race. Protagonus, trained by Nick Zito, looked terrific in a first-level allowance win on the April 1 Florida Derby undercard at Gulfstream, while Record, trained by Bob Baffert, has been remarkably consistent in his four career starts, all at Santa Anita.

The rest of the field is R Loyal Man, New Awakening, Smokeyjonessutton, and Spotsgone.

The Trial, the ninth of 10 races on the Saturday opener, opens a rich stakes schedule that peaks a week later with the Derby. Besides all the action of Derby Week, which also includes the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks and Grade 1 Woodford Reserve, the post-Derby segment of the spring meet is highlighted by a six-stakes day on June 17, capped by the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap. In all, 32 stakes are on tap.

The spring meet has been extended one week longer than customary. Closing day is July 16, whereas in previous years it would have been the preceding Sunday, July 9. The longer meet reduces the number of dates at Churchill-owned Ellis Park, the western Kentucky track hit by a devastating tornado last November.

This is the second spring meet for Churchill's new plant, which underwent a $121 million, 3 1/2-year renovation completed last April. And it will be the first for Scott Jordan as the official race starter. Jordan, 35, was named earlier this month to replace Roger Nagle, although, for the Oaks and Derby this year, Churchill will employ veteran starter Bob Duncan, formerly of the New York Racing Association.

Luke Kruytbosch is back for his eighth year as the Churchill race-caller.

At a glance: Churchill Downs

RACING SCHEDULE: 57 days; Saturday through July 16; dark on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Sunday, May 7, Wednesday, May 31; and Wednesday and Thursday, July 5-6. Open Tuesday, May 2; Monday, May 29; and Monday and Tuesday, July 3-4.

POST TIME: Derby week, 12:45 p.m. Eastern; Oaks Day and Derby Day (May 5-6), 11 a.m.; post-Derby, 1:15 p.m. daily except Fridays (2:45).

PURSES: Average of about $470,000 per day.

ADMISSION: General, $2, with seating additional at various prices; Oaks general admission, $25; Derby general admission, $40; Oaks and Derby seats sold out.

PARKING: Longfield Ave. lot (Gate 10), free; general, $3; valet, $5; exceptions are Oaks and Derby Days when all parking is restricted.

LOCATION: 700 Central Ave., Louisville, Ky.

SWITCHBOARD: (502) 636-4400.

INTERNET: http://www.kentuckyderby.com