02/23/2006 1:00AM

Lawyer Ron keeps the flag flying

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Louis Hodges Jr.
Lawyer Ron wins the Risen Star last out for a third straight victory, by a combined 27 1/2 lengths.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Lawyer Ron continues his trek toward the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the $250,000 at Oaklawn Park, but what is supposed to be a time of hope has become tinged with sadness. James T. Hines Jr., who bred and owned Lawyer Ron, was found dead on Tuesday of an apparent accidental drowning.

Lawyer Ron will carry on in his colors as he races for Hines's estate in the Southwest, the first of two local preps for the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby. A win in the race and beyond would be a fitting tribute to Hines.

"His goal was to breed a good horse and he accomplished it," said Bob Holthus, who trains Lawyer Ron. "He enjoyed this horse."

Lawyer Ron is searching for his fourth straight victory Saturday. He comes into the Southwest off an 8 1/4-length route of the Grade 3, $250,000 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs on Jan. 14. Lawyer Ron earned the second-highest Beyer Speed Figure by a 3-year-old around two turns this year, a 106.

And speed is just part of his appeal. Lawyer Ron is also unbeaten on dirt. He has turned in a series of strong local works. He has an experience edge on his rivals, and his confidence is soaring after winning his last three starts by a combined 27 1/2 lengths.

"He's the most talented horse I've had at this stage in his career," said Holthus, who has won the Southwest four times, with such horses as Greater Good last year and Proper Reality, the Arkansas Derby winner in 1988.

Lawyer Ron will break from post 3 in the Southwest, which at one mile will begin and end at the sixteenth pole at Oaklawn. Lawyer Ron will be ridden by John McKee.

"He always breaks well, and he's going to be close to the lead if he's not on the lead," said Holthus.

Music School, who is closely related to the 2003 Horse of the Year, Mineshaft, should get a stalking trip. He is making his stakes debut after having won both of his career starts.

"I think he could get a nice position, maybe three, four lengths off the lead," said Neil Howard, who trains Music School and has given the mount to Robby Albarado.

Music School won his two-turn and season debut in a one-mile allowance at Oaklawn on Feb. 5. He won by three-quarters of a length in a strong time of 1:39.

Music School seems set to move forward off that race.

"The way he's eating, and the way he looks and the way he's been training, all signs are indicating that he should be able to add a little bit to that last effort," Howard said.

Steppenwolfer is the field's best closer. He has won 3 of his 4 dirt starts, and in his last out he won an allowance prep for the Southwest on Feb. 3. Trained by Dan Peitz, he is a big, long-striding gray who appears to be on the improve.

"I'm figuring we're probably going to be in the back half of the field the first part of the race and see if we can reel them in," said Peitz, who has given the mount to Corey Lanerie.

The Southwest was originally scheduled to be run Monday, but a winter storm forced the cancellation of that card. In all, 10 colts will start in the race. Other contenders include Mark of Success, runner-up to Lawyer Ron in the Risen Star, and Kingsfield, the winner of the off-the-turf Black Gold at the Fair Grounds meet in January.