08/22/2006 11:00PM

Local group gives St. Louis Derby its luster

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Saturday's $250,000 St. Louis Derby will be the richest race in the 81-year history of Fairmount Park, and it is also a rarity - a major stakes funded solely by a non-commercial private contribution.

The St. Louis Derby, for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, would not have been possible without the financial backing of Circle C Stables, a locally based racing partnership run by Jeff Cooper and John Kabbendjian. For Fairmount Park, a track that for years has struggled financially in part because of nearby riverboat casinos, it is a prime opportunity to reap rewards without having to incur significant expense.

This is the second time the Circle C Stables has contributed funds to enhance stakes purses at Fairmount. Last year, the stable contributed over half of the $165,000 distributed among four stakes ranging in size from $30,000 to $50,000. While the aim then was to give local horsemen a shot at winning a decent purse, the primary goal this time is to give local fans a chance to see some top horses while putting Fairmount back on the national radar.

This is not the first time Fairmount Park will be in the national spotlight by hosting a derby. The track was previously home to the Fairmount Derby, which in its heyday in the 1980's and 1990's carried a $150,000 purse and Grade 3 status.

The Fairmount Derby went through several incarnations. The first was in the late 1920's, when it attracted several Kentucky Derby winners and runners-up. Dormant after a brief revival in the late 1960's, the Fairmount Derby was born again in 1981 and lasted until 1995. The most prominent winner during that era was Smile, who won in 1985 and was named champion sprinter the following year.

One trainer who had a horse compete in that final Fairmount Derby in 1995 was Bob Holthus, the trainer of St. Louis Derby favorite Lawyer Ron. The Holthus-trained Mine Inspector ran fourth that year to Strawberry Wine, who was ridden by Pat Day and trained by Bill Mott.

Lewis Michael ready for Lawyer Ron

Trainer Wayne Catalano earlier this week decided against sending Lewis Michael to Saratoga for either the Travers or King's Bishop, and instead will ship a few hundred miles south from his Arlington Park base for the St. Louis Derby.

While avoiding the likes of Bernardini, Bluegrass Cat, Henny Hughes, or Songster by not shipping to New York, Lewis Michael must face Lawyer Ron, one of the early- season leaders in the division.

"No matter where you go, you're going to hook good horses for that kind of money," Catalano said, adding that Lewis Michael "is doing super."

Lewis Michael spent the early part of his career racing on turf, winning an overnight handicap at Churchill and later finishing third to Barbaro in the Tropical Park Derby. Catalano tried Lewis Michael on the dirt again last spring, and he turned in a breakout effort in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, missing by a neck to Sunriver and earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure.

Lewis Michael next ran in the $1 million Colonial Turf Cup, where he finished ninth, a performance Catalano said he is willing to overlook because it came after minor surgery for a displaced soft palate. Lewis Michael rebounded by winning a second-level allowance on the dirt at Arlington by over eight lengths.

"The jury's still out on his turf ability, but we're sticking to dirt for now," Catalano said.

Wait and see with Kid Lemonade

Trainer Tim Ritchey said after the St. Louis Derby draw that he was still debating whether to ship Kid Lemonade from Delaware to Fairmount to run in the race, and that he would decide after looking at the race more closely. Kid Lemonade drew post 10, and if he runs will be ridden by Stewart Elliott.

Kid Lemonade has won 3 of 14 starts, and has placed in several minor stakes at Delaware and recently earned a 105 Beyer for a wire-to-wire second-level allowance win at that track.

"He's a late-maturing horse," Ritchey said. "He's going to get better later in the year and as a 4-year-old."

Slight in the Rear draws seven

The Slight in the Rear Stakes failed to draw sufficient entries when it was offered earlier in the meet, but it was rescheduled for Friday and drew a field of seven. For statebred 3-year-old fillies, the Slight in the Rear carries a $40,000 purse.

Bettors will likely concentrate on three fillies, the most accomplished being Trout River Red, a stakes winner at Fairmount last year. Dee Jean, who has reeled off four straight wins at the meet, and Passionate Kip, a two-time allowance winner at Arlington, are the other main players.