04/17/2006 12:00AM

None likely to skip this party

Sinister Minister, Garrett Gomez up, earned the highest Beyer of the year (116) in the Blue Grass.

Barbaro, Brother Derek, and Lawyer Ron all were at or near the top of anyone's short list of Kentucky Derby contenders at the beginning of the year, and each one has remained unbeaten since then. They, along with Wood Memorial winner Bob and John, Illinois Derby winner Sweetnorthernsaint, and United Arab Emirates Derby winner Discreet Cat, make up a formidable group of top prospects for the 132nd Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs.

But there have been enough upsets in other stakes races, like that of Sinister Minister in the might have exposed him as a one-hit Polytrack wonder, but whose earnings from the Lane's End Stakes are sufficient to get him into the Derby.

Very few leading candidates from earlier this year have gone by the wayside. First Samurai, who was taken off the Derby trail following his fifth-place finish in the Blue Grass, is a notable exception.

As a result, with the Derby just 19 days away on Monday, the list of 3-year-olds pointing for America's most famous race was well above the maximum of 20 who can run in the race. It seems likely that the field will be determined by earnings in graded stakes races, which is the criterion used by Churchill Downs should more than 20 horses enter the race May 3.

Only two graded stakes - the Lexington at Keeneland on Saturday and the Withers at Aqueduct on April 29 - are to be run before the Derby. The Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington, in particular, will be closely watched. Like Now, who currently is just outside the top 20, and Showing Up, who has no graded earnings, are likely for the race. Sunriver, who needs additional earnings to be assured a spot in the field, is possible.

"I've got to figure out whether it's worthwhile to run in the Lexington," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Sunriver. "To meaningfully push himself up, he's got to finish first or second. I'm not sure that his running style would really suit the Keeneland track, and I'm not sure if you're not sacrificing your best chance for the Derby trying to get in."

Sinister Minister earned his way into the Derby with an overpowering victory in the Blue Grass. He received a Beyer Speed Figure of 116, the highest number recorded by any horse this year. Sinister Minister remained at Keeneland on Monday. His trainer, Bob Baffert, said he would go to Churchill "as soon as he gets up."

"He's laid out there," Baffert said. "He's tired. He ran like he trained. We just didn't know how much quality he had."

Storm Treasure, who finished second in the Blue Grass, will also go on to the Derby, trainer Steve Asmussen said. Strong Contender, who was third, likely will not have enough earnings to get into the Derby, so trainer John T. Ward Jr. was looking at other options.

"The logical thing is to look at the Preakness, but historically horses who don't run in the Derby don't run well in the Preakness," Ward said. "Or, we might bring him along slowly - circle the Travers and work backwards from there."

Bluegrass Cat, who was fourth, "came out of the race in good shape, scoped clean, sound," Pletcher said.

"I don't really have a terrific excuse at this point other than just trying to figure out what to make out of the surface there," said Pletcher. "Obviously one horse seemed to handle it a whole lot better than the rest of them. So, rather than jump to any conclusions, I'm just going to sit back and see how the horse trains and decide whether we're going to draw a line through the last race and try again, or go a different route."

Pletcher is also going to delay a decision on Keyed Entry, who flew to Kentucky on Monday from New York. He most recently was third in the Wood Memorial.

"I probably won't make a decision until the Monday before the race," Pletcher said. "That'll give me time to give them their final breezes, see where they are."

Seaside Retreat, who was sixth in the Blue Grass, is possible for the Derby if he can get in based on earnings, trainer Mark Casse said. Right now, he is on the bubble.

At Oaklawn Park, Lawyer Ron ran his winning streak to six in the Arkansas Derby, in which he got a Beyer of 98. He flew to Churchill Downs on Monday along with Private Vow, Red Raymond, Steppenwolfer, and With a City.

Bob Holthus, who trains Lawyer Ron, said jockey John McKee "had to use him a little early to get on through there, rather than get trapped on the rail."

"I thought it worked out fine," Holthus said. "He was able to get him to relax then and get a pretty good breather and sprinted home. I don't think a mile and a quarter will affect him that much. If he trains as well the next three weeks as he has the last three, they'll know they've been in a horse race if they beat him."

Steppenwolfer (second), Private Vow (third), and With a City (last of 13) are also scheduled to face Lawyer Ron again in the Kentucky Derby, their connections said.

"All these prep races have been won by speed horses," said Dan Peitz, who trains Steppenwolfer. "From my standpoint, I've got a fighter's chance in the race, because my running style is probably going to give me a chance, [with] all the speed in the race."

Pletcher said High Cotton (ninth) was off the Derby trail. Holthus, who also trains Red Raymond (10th), said it was doubtful Red Raymond would go to the Derby, but "if he comes back and really trains good the next three weeks and he did have enough money, we might take a shot." Red Raymond would need several unexpected defections from those above him on the earnings list to make it.

Owner Ron Peltz said of With a City's last-place finish: "We're not letting it deter us at all."

In California, Brother Derek breezed five furlongs in 1:01.40 on Monday morning at Santa Anita with exercise rider Cisco Alvarado. It was his first work since his victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 8.

Starting 4 1/2 furlongs from the finish, Brother Derek had splits of 25.20 seconds for the opening quarter and 49.60 seconds for a half-mile, according to trainer Dan Hendricks, who caught Brother Derek in 1:01.80, slightly slower than the track's official clockers.

"He picked it up a little bit and stretched his legs," Hendricks said.

Brother Derek worked two lanes away from the rail and appeared to go very easily.

Hendricks said that Brother Derek would have one more workout on April 24 before leaving for Churchill Downs on April 25. Alex Solis, his regular jockey, is expected to work Brother Derek seven furlongs next week, Hendricks said.

Also Monday, A. P. Warrior worked seven furlongs on a fast track at Hollywood Park in 1:27.40, and Cause to Believe worked a half-mile in 49.40 seconds on a sloppy track at Golden Gate Fields.

In Dubai, Godolphin Racing has still not officially said Discreet Cat is in the Derby, but all indications are that he's coming.

"They touched base with us and said they are coming," said Doug Bredar, the director of racing and racing secretary at Churchill Downs. "They gave the impression they were running. They haven't confirmed anything yet, but it sounds promising. I'd be surprised if he didn't run."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening, Marty McGee, and Mary Rampellini