05/11/2007 12:00AM

Minister's Bid drops down off long layoff

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The last two times Minister's Bid raced, he competed against Bernardini, last year's champion 3-year-old colt.

Sunday, when Minister's Bid makes his first start as a 4-year-old, the competition is decidedly easier. He is entered against six second-level allowance runners in the ninth race, a $52,500 race going seven furlongs on the Churchill Downs main track.

Coming off a runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy and a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Travers, Minister's Bid is the class of the race and has been installed as the 3-5 morning-line favorite.

Trainer John Ward also has high expectations this year for the colt, a son of Deputy Minister who won his first two starts before the two losses in the Jim Dandy and Travers.

Minister's Bid will still need to overcome a lengthy layoff to win. He has not raced since the Aug. 26 Travers, a race in which he was beaten 21 lengths by Bernardini after getting pinched back at the start. The colt has battled recurring quarter cracks since that race.

Ward said Friday that he hopes the quarter cracks are in the past. He said training over the synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland since April has helped his horse get back to the races.

"I'm looking for a good race unless it turns out to be a hard racetrack," he said of the Churchill strip.

Minister's Bid, a winner of 2 of 4 starts and $178,825 for owner John Oxley, has worked three times at Keeneland in the last month after breezing at Gulfstream Park over the winter. Rafael Bejarano has the mount

Forest Phantom heads the opposition. Although not as accomplished as Minister's Bid, he is fit and sharp. Last month at Keeneland, while Minister's Bid was working toward his comeback race, Forest Phantom raced twice. He was second, beaten a nose, in an allowance April 7, and returned to finish a close third in a similar race April 18.

He appears well suited to the seven-furlong distance of Sunday's race, as does Minister's Bid. The issue with Forest Phantom is the move to dirt. He has run on either turf or Polytrack in his last seven races, and acts like a faster horse on those surfaces.

In contrast, West to Durango is more effective on dirt. He won his last race April 13 on the Hawthorne main track, rallying from eighth to win an entry-level allowance by 6 1/2 lengths.