02/27/2006 1:00AM

Lawyer Ron displays new dimension


NEW YORK - If a three-quarter-length victory in an ungraded stakes race in late February can be meaningful in a Kentucky Derby context, Lawyer Ron's win in Saturday's Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park was a case study.

Lawyer Ron's success was certainly no surprise. He had never lost in four previous starts on a conventional dirt track - all seven of his defeats had come on turf or on Polytrack at Turfway Park - and had won his last three starts by an average of more than nine lengths. The 106 Beyer Speed Figure that Lawyer Ron earned in his romp in the Risen Star Stakes in his last start towered over the rest of the Southwest field. All of this conspired to make Lawyer Ron a 1-2 shot on Saturday.

But even though Lawyer Ron was more seriously challenged in the Southwest than he had been in any of his prior wins, and despite the fact that his winning Beyer of 95 was considerably slower than his Risen Star number, Lawyer Ron made a more favorable impression than he had in any of his previous scores.

To begin with, Lawyer Ron ran against a couple of opponents in Steppenwolfer and Music School who are potentially talented racehorses. But even more impressive is that he took a projected race setup that some people, myself included, thought would work against him and turned it on its head.

On paper, there was a lot of speed in the Southwest. Mark of Success, who led Lawyer Ron in the early stages of the Risen Star, was in there, as was Travelin Leroy, who had been on the early lead in all three of his races and has short-sprint speed. Music School showed a preference for being close early in his two starts, and Sharp Attack was another who had been right with the pace in almost all of his races.

This could have spelled trouble for Lawyer Ron, who essentially is a front-runner but who had shown the ability to allow an overmatched opponent briefly to have his way on the front end early. Lawyer Ron was expected to search early for the sweet spot, rating far enough off the lead so that he wouldn't also feel the effects of a demanding and contested pace, but not so far off the lead that he would be in a position alien to him. Either way, he figured to rate.

Instead, Lawyer Ron broke like a shot and went right to the front. And while his opening quarter-mile fraction of 23.29 seconds might not sound that fast, it was. That fraction was posted around the first turn, and Lawyer Ron had to run fast not only to take the track away from the other speed horses, but also to open a lead of a couple of lengths.

It looked like Lawyer Ron was going to pay the price for this strategy late on the far turn, as Music School and especially Steppenwolfer made moves as if they were going to inhale him. But Lawyer Ron showed an interesting dimension. Turning for home, he seemed to re-break, and actually extended his lead for a brief time. This burst of speed from Lawyer Ron appeared to take the heart out of the inexperienced Music School. And it provided just the cushion Lawyer Ron needed to contain the late run from Steppenwolfer, a rapidly improving colt who earned respect in defeat considering he had to go four wide around the far turn to rally.

It will be interesting to see what Kentucky Derby Future Wager bettors will do with Lawyer Ron and Steppenwolfer when Pool 2 opens Thursday. Unlike Pool 1 last month, when there were no major prep races during the betting period and early Triple Crown nominations had not even closed yet, there are two important Kentucky Derby prep races scheduled during Pool 2 - Saturday's Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita and the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Santa Catalina is expected to attract Brother Derek - who, with Stevie Wonderboy out of the Triple Crown races, is now the Derby future book favorite - and perhaps the highly regarded Latent Heat. The Fountain of Youth might attract as many as six individual betting interests from Pool 2, including First Samurai, who is among the future book Derby favorites, Great Point, Corinthian, Flashy Bull, Itsallboutthechase, and My Golden Song.

With a day to assess the results of Saturday's preps, there will certainly be big movement in the Derby Future Wager odds on Sunday before betting on Pool 2 closes. And if history is any guide, bettors are likely to pay inordinate attention to the individual betting interests who race during the betting period.

So, if you liked what you saw from Lawyer Ron and Steppenwolfer in the Southwest, don't worry too much about it ruining your Derby Future Wager odds. There is good reason to believe you will still get your price.