04/17/2006 12:00AM

The next War Emblem? It's possible


NEW YORK - Once the initial shock wore off from Sinister Minister's upset rout of Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, an intriguing thought occurred. In several respects, Sinister Minister has a profile that parallels War Emblem, upset winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby and winner of the Preakness and Haskell Invitational that season.

Like War Emblem, Sinister Minister was an unheralded 3-year-old on absolutely no one's Derby radar until a major breakthrough in one of the races in the final round of Kentucky Derby preps. For War Emblem, his breakthrough came in the Illinois Derby, after he had succumbed in three previous stakes attempts. Sinister Minister failed in two stakes attempts before his sudden emergence in the Blue Grass.

Like War Emblem in his Illinois Derby, Sinister Minister engineered his breakthrough Saturday in front-running fashion.

Like War Emblem, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure dramatically better than anything he had previously earned. The 112 Beyer that War Emblem received in the Illinois Derby was 14 points better, or about nine lengths going a distance of ground, than his previous best Beyer. The 116 Beyer that Sinister Minister received also topped his previous best by 14 points. And barring another unforeseen development in this Saturday's Lexington Stakes, Sinister Minister will bring the highest last-race Beyer into the Kentucky Derby on May 6, just as War Emblem did in his Derby four years ago.

And finally, like War Emblem, Sinister Minister was a relatively late arrival to trainer Bob Baffert's barn. War Emblem didn't switch over to Baffert until he was sold privately following his Illinois Derby win; Sinister Minister was moved into Baffert's care only this past February.

Of course, none of this guarantees that Sinister Minister will post another front-running upset 2 1/2 weeks from now. But in view of how he ran in the Blue Grass, and given a fair break from the starting gate at Churchill Downs, it is hard to envision any other horse in front in the early stages of this Kentucky Derby.

Simply put, Sinister Minister bottomed his field out in the Blue Grass. With a first quarter-mile in 22.91 seconds and a second quarter in 22.97, Sinister Minister found himself isolated on top by seven lengths. And even though he slowed down a bit through a third quarter in 24.06, Sinister Minister's main competition - namely Bluegrass Cat, Strong Contender, and First Samurai - were so spent just trying to keep within hailing distance of the lead that they had nothing left to mount an effective challenge. Factor in the inherent speed bias of Keeneland's main track, and the only question remaining for Sinister Minister as he turned for home alone was how much the win margin would be.

It was almost 13 lengths, and even Sinister Minister's final three furlongs in 38.91, which on the surface doesn't seem great, really wasn't bad considering how fast he went early.

By contrast, Lawyer Ron's victory in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park seemed almost mundane, even if, as the 1-2 favorite, Lawyer Ron restored a bit of order to the day.

There are those who will be eager to scrutinize Lawyer Ron and his Arkansas Derby score, especially considering that he will likely be the second choice in the betting in the Kentucky Derby, behind Brother Derek. And there are valid reasons to take a negative view, if one is so inclined. As decisive as his victory was Saturday, the 98 Beyer he earned was the third straight time he failed to earn a triple-digit Beyer, although when he won the Risen Star in January, he proved he could run fast by earning a Beyer of 106. And, Lawyer Ron's time for the final three furlongs, 40.40 over a track that was fast, if not conducive to really fast times, was nothing to write home about.

But in a visual sense, there is something about Lawyer Ron, who is now 7 for 7 over a conventional dirt track, that almost encourages you to exempt him from these more objective measures. When he won the Southwest in February, he outran three other speed horses to establish a clear early lead, and held on through the stretch with grim determination. When he won the Rebel last month, he rallied from midpack and ran away with the race despite racing wide and conceding meaningful ground.

On Saturday, Lawyer Ron was in a tricky spot in tight down on the rail into the first turn. As if to take matters into his own hands, Lawyer Ron showed a quick burst of speed to get out of that predicament and didn't seem satisfied until he took control of the race early on the backstretch. The early fractions were strong, and Lawyer Ron ran the hardest through them. And yet, from the instant he took the lead to the final jump, it almost seemed as if Lawyer Ron was toying with the rest of the field, almost taunting them. My head tells me horses really aren't this way, but if it seems Lawyer Ron has the ability to do a lot better once his competition gets a lot better, which it will two weeks from Saturday.