03/20/2006 12:00AM

Rebel victor showed most Derby flair


NEW YORK - The best way to analyze the results of Saturday's four Kentucky Derby prep races is to put them into the context of the job they were meant to do. So what follows is one man's ranking, in descending order of importance, of the potential impact Saturday's four preps might have on the Kentucky Derby.

Rebel Stakes

Potential to impact the Kentucky Derby: Strong.

Just about everyone is in agreement that the most impressive performance in Saturday's four Derby preps was Lawyer Ron's victory in this race. Indeed, Lawyer Ron impresses for different reasons every time he races now. In January, he proved he could run fast when he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 106 in overwhelming his field in the Risen Star Stakes. In last month's Southwest Stakes, Lawyer Ron outran several other opponents with good early speed to open a clear early lead. He rebroke entering the stretch, and then held on with grim determination. In the Rebel, Lawyer Ron showed yet another new dimension. He was taken back off the pace, racing a bit rank in an early position he had been unaccustomed to. But he then looped the leaders going four or five wide around the far turn, and ran off to another eye-catching score.

Right now, Lawyer Ron looks like the complete package. He can run fast. He can go to the lead, or he can close. He has different gears, and ground loss doesn't seem to faze him. Oh yes, he has now won five straight, and is 6 for 6 on conventional dirt tracks. Lawyer Ron is just a running fool.

Lawyer Ron is also the sole reason why the Rebel is ranked as the highest of Saturday's preps when it comes to potential impact on the Kentucky Derby, as the other two starters of interest in the Rebel - Private Vow and Steppenwolfer - both disappointed. Private Vow had perfect early position and had nothing in the stretch, finishing seventh. As for Steppenwolfer, for a colt with a supposed big late kick, he was closer to Lawyer Ron on the far turn than he was at the wire, and was actually outfinished for the place.

San Felipe Stakes

Potential to impact the Kentucky Derby: Fair.

Fair seems like the right assessment for a race that could ultimately prove to be either important, or meaningless, come Kentucky Derby time. Optimistically speaking, A. P. Warrior came to life in his first start for trainer John Shirreffs to win, and should be cut some slack for seeing his clear midstretch lead dwindle to just a half-length at the wire. Since he had not run a representative race since early November, A. P. Warrior was probably a short horse. And the runner-up, Point Determined, ran well, as he was close to quick early fractions, and after dropping back in the middle stages, rallied despite some stretch traffic. On the downside, however, the come-home time of the San Felipe was slow. The final five-sixteenths of a mile was run in a poor 32.01 seconds, perhaps making A. P. Warrior and Point Determined appear to perform better than they actually did.

The big disappointment in the San Felipe was, of course, even-money favorite Bob and John, who failed to do better than third. Even as slow as the field came home in the San Felipe, Bob and John had no real stretch punch.

Tampa Bay Derby

Potential to impact the Kentucky Derby: Marginal.

With his upset victory in this race, Deputy Glitters's recent sudden and dramatic improvement might well be entirely attributable, as his connections insist, to his opportunity finally to go two turns. But without taking anything away from Deputy Glitters, the story of the Tampa Bay Derby was the defeat of Bluegrass Cat. The mediocre second-place finish by Bluegrass Cat is the chief reason why the Tampa Bay Derby cannot be ranked higher as a Kentucky Derby prep of potential import.

Before Saturday, Bluegrass Cat was thought to be a quirky kind of horse. After moving into stakes company last fall, he seemed to work only as hard and run only as fast as required. In retrospect, maybe Bluegrass Cat wasn't keeping a lot under wraps, because on Saturday, he ran the same kind of one-paced race, and it simply wasn't good enough. And at this point, it has to be a concern that a supposedly premier Derby candidate like Bluegrass Cat has yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer Figure.

Gotham Stakes

Potential to impact the Kentucky Derby: Poor.

It isn't that Like Now, Keyed Entry, and Sweetnorthernsaint ran badly finishing 1-2-3 in the Gotham. In fact, the Beyer folks rated the race highly, with a winning figure of 104. And it goes beyond the fact that Like Now's 36-1 upset decision was owed to his coasting on an uncontested early lead because Keyed Entry and Sweetnorthernsaint both tried something new, rating off the early lead. No, the reason why the Gotham is unlikely to be a serious factor come the Kentucky Derby is because none of the top three finishers looked like he could be effective, or improve, in a truly run race at a longer distance than the 1 1/16 miles they got on Saturday. And if they are to be a factor in the Kentucky Derby, they must.