09/02/2006 12:00AM

McKee takes fourth crack at Cradle


CINCINNATI - Like virtually any other red-blooded American jockey, John McKee lists the Kentucky Derby as the race he would most like to win. But unlike most others, he has the premier event at River Downs, the Cradle Stakes, very high on his list.

"It would be very special to win it," said McKee, who grew up about a half-hour from River in the tiny town of Hamersville, Ohio. "It's where I got my start. Home is home."

Since taking River Downs by storm as an apprentice in 2002, McKee has ridden three times without success in the Cradle. But he is back for another try this year, and when he climbs aboard Trophy Road in the 30th running of the Cradle late Monday afternoon, he surely will have more fans in the crowd than any other jockey. His parents, aunts, uncles, and an untold number of friends will be rooting him on.

"It's going to be a lot of fun, having so many people I know there," said McKee, who has ridden infrequently at River since his breakout year.

McKee, 24, has become a highly productive journeyman since his start at River, winning 820 races and more than $22.6 million in purses. His primary circuit is Kentucky, where he has been riding most recently at Ellis Park. His latest notable victory came last weekend aboard Lawyer Ron in the $250,000 St. Louis Derby at Fairmount Park.

Hopes stay high for Trophy Road

Trophy Road, the lone Ohio-bred in the 10-horse Cradle field, was a 10-length winner here in July, leading trainer Mike Maker to believe he might have a top prospect to replace the deceased With a City in his stable at Louisville Trackside. And even after Trophy Road finished sixth as the 5-2 second choice in the Aug. 5 Ellis Juvenile, Maker was willing to give him another chance.

"The day after the Ellis race, he had a temperature," said Maker. "We'd like to believe that had something to do with his effort."

Maker, a former longtime assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, has had numerous thrills since going out on his own in 2003, including upsets in two major races: the $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup with Freefourinternet in 2004 and the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes last March with With a City. Unfortunately for Maker and owner Ron Peltz, who co-owns Trophy Road, With a City died of a blood ailment in April while being pointed to the Kentucky Derby.

"I've been in racing long enough to know you've got to roll with the punches," said Maker. "But that one definitely hurt."

Maker said Trophy Road could help ease whatever pain still lingers by pulling a mild upset in the Cradle.

"All along, I've thought he would improve with more distance," he said. "He's a big, immature colt who wants more ground."

Lawyer Ron points to Super Derby

Lawyer Ron returned from his St. Louis Derby victory and will breeze Saturday at Churchill Downs, said trainer Bob Holthus. Lawyer Ron runs next in the Sept. 23 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.

"He rated kindly and ran by them pretty good," said Holthus. "It was an excellent comeback."

McKee said he believed Lawyer Ron, who had not raced since the May 6 Kentucky Derby, "got a lot out of the race" and was "very professional" in victory.

Claiborne has good shot for repeat

When the Cradle runners are led around the walking ring Monday, they will encircle a jockey replica sporting the familiar yellow-orange silks of Claiborne Farm. The silks are repainted each year to match those of the winning Cradle owner, an honor that Claiborne earned last year when Laity, trained by Frank Brothers, won the Cradle by 11 3/4 lengths.

Then again, the silks might not have to be repainted for another year. Claiborne is back with another serious contender, Passport, a Pulpit colt who won his lone start, an Ellis Park turf race. A victory Monday would be the third in the Cradle for Claiborne and Brothers, who also teamed to win the 1996 running with Haint.

One race over, another appears close

Although River divides its summer into two meets, statistical categories are maintained as if there was no such technicality. And as the meets' combined 103 days come to an end Monday, there is no doubt about the leading rider: Rodney Prescott, who had 112 wins into the Saturday card.

The trainer race, however, appeared to be coming down to the final few races. Into Saturday, Rinzy Nocero held a 25-24 lead over Larry Holt.

* A memorial tribute for trainer Jeff Williams will be held before the first race Monday. Williams was among the 49 people killed in the Aug. 27 airplane crash in Lexington, Ky.