04/17/2006 11:00PM

Lexington could affect Derby pace


LAS VEGAS - Last call for the Derby. The Lexington Stakes, run at 1 1/16 miles this Saturday at Keeneland, is the last opportunity for 3-year-olds who need graded earnings to get a berth in the Kentucky Derby. While the top contenders are finished with their preps, the Lexington could yield some Derby hopefuls, and the race has played a key role in past Derbies.

In 1984, Swale finished second in the Lexington before winning the Derby. Stephan's Odyssey won the 1985 Lexington and finished second to Spend a Buck in that year's Derby. Risen Star defeated Forty Niner in the 1987 Lexington, and while he had a horrific trip in the Derby, finishing a troubled third, he went on to easy victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Forty Niner, meanwhile, rallied late and just missed catching Winning Colors by a neck in the Derby. Hansel won the 1991 Lexington, and like so many horses before and after him, he didn't handle the Churchill Downs surface but rebounded to win both the Preakness and Belmont. In 1996, Prince of Thieves was second in the Lexington and then finished third to Grindstone and Cavonnier in the Derby. Charismatic won the 1999 Lexington and added the Derby and Preakness. In 2002, Proud Citizen followed his Lexington victory with a second in the Derby behind War Emblem.

Charismatic and Proud Citizen were hardly among most handicappers' top 10 Derby horses in their respective years, and while this year's renewal of the Lexington also does not feature any of the leading names, there are several who would affect the Derby by just being in the race. Showing Up and Like Now have high speed, and their presence in the Derby would add to the inordinate amount of speed this year.

Sunriver (Saint Ballado) is unlikely to get into the Derby without more graded earnings, but after considering the Lexington, trainer Todd Pletcher decided he will not run there because he realizes that Keeneland's freeway is not conducive to Sunriver's late-running style. A full brother to Ashado, Sunriver is just getting good and is one of a handful of runners who could benefit from early suicidal fractions. Wide on both turns in the Florida Derby, he nevertheless was running strongly to finish third behind Barbaro and Sharp Humor. The Derby distance seems right up his alley.

Showing Up is from the first crop of Strategic Mission, a son of Mr. Prospector who was best on turf. Not as well known as his major stakes-winning half-brothers Sultry Song (Cox's Ridge) and Solar Splendor (Majestic Light), Strategic Mission had blazing early speed, which Showing Up has clearly inherited. Showing Up is out of the T.V. Commercial mare Miss Alethia and is a half-brother to the very quick Gimmeawink (Elusive Quality). His front-running speed is perfect for Keeneland, but is a real question mark for 1 1/4 miles in Louisville, especially with so much speed signed on.

Like Now, the upset winner of the Gotham Stakes, also has good speed. Although he would not be the front-runner in the Derby, he would definitely be among many who would make up the second group behind the leaders. By the late Jules (the sire of Peace Rules), Like Now is out of a mare by Preakness winner Pine Bluff. The most important aspect of his pedigree, though, is that he is an RF (Rasmussen Factor), because he is inbred to Natalma, through her son Northern Dancer and daughter Raise the Standard. Inbreeding to superior females, in general, and to Natalma and her dam, Almahmoud, specifically, has resulted in an unusually high percentage of stakes runners.

Turf to dirt?

To Sender has an explosive pedigree - for turf. By King's Best (Kingmambo), winner of the 2000 Guineas in 2002, To Sender is out of Return (Sadler's Wells), a full sister to Dushyantor, whose many Group 1 victories included the Epsom Derby. Return is also a half-sister to European champion miler Warning (Known Fact) and Commander in Chief (Dancing Brave), who captured the Epsom and Irish derbies. Return is out of Slightly Dangerous (Roberto), the 1997 U.S. Broodmare of the Year who won the Epsom Oaks. Slightly Dangerous is also a half-sister to I Will Follow, the dam of Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Rainbow Quest.

In addition to the deep quality from both sides of his pedigree, To Sender is also an RF, because he is inbred to the very influential broodmare Special, who is the dam of Nureyev and second dam of Sadler's Wells. Bred to be a superstar on grass, To Sender must be considered suspect on dirt but adds intrigue to the Lexington.