04/27/2006 11:00PM

A relaxed Brother Derek settles in

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Undefeated Kentucky Derby contender Barbaro gallops under Peter Brette Friday morning at Churchill Downs. Saturday's Derby will be his first start since the Florida Derby on April 1.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Brother Derek, the probable favorite for the Kentucky Derby, had his first look around the Churchill Downs track on Friday morning after arriving on Thursday afternoon, and had an easy jog under exercise rider Luis Ortega. Brother Derek looked a little sleepier than usual, and there was a reason for it. His trainer, Dan Hendricks, gave him a shot of the tranquilizer Acepromazine on Friday morning.

"I just wanted to get him through the first day here," Hendricks said. "Tomorrow he's going to be coming out of his skin. We'll pay for it tomorrow. At least Luis will."

Acepromazine, commonly known as "Ace," is illegal to use on race day. Hendricks said it has a withdrawal time of five days, so he felt comfortable using it eight days in front of the May 6 Kentucky Derby.

"That's one of the reasons we came now as opposed to later," Hendricks said.

As Hendricks watched Brother Derek take a bath outside Barn 42, which abuts Longfield Ave., a fan drove up in a car, slowed outside the chain-link fest, and loudly yelled, "Go Brother Derek!"

"It's going to be crazy," Hendricks said, laughing.

Hendricks said the crush of media outside his barn, which began in earnest on Friday, was another reason to arrive early with Brother Derek.

"We want to keep him safe, but he's got to get used to the media," Hendricks said. "That's why we came in a week early."

Barbaro makes first appearance

Barbaro, the Florida Derby winner, also visited the Churchill Downs main track for the first time on Friday morning, with exercise rider Peter Brette.

"He just seems to be getting better and better," said his trainer, Michael Matz. "He's an April 29 foal, so [Saturday] is his birthday. I think he's growing quite a bit right now. He's still developing."

Matz said he believes Barbaro can move forward off his victory in the Florida Derby, which was his first start in eight weeks and came five weeks before the Derby.

"He amazes me right now just to be around him," Matz said. "He came out of the race good. He might make a liar of me, but he came out of it good and he's acting good."

Feeling like a king

Even if Greater Good had won the Kentucky Derby last year, his trainer would not have been able to enjoy the improbable victory.

"I felt terrible," said Bob Holthus. "We went home right after the Derby."

A few days after the Derby, Holthus was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, and early in his two-week hospital stay, friends and family said his life was in peril. Holthus, who has had a defibrillator in his chest for the last 15 years or so, lost about 40 pounds in just a few weeks. Fortunately, his condition eventually stabilized, then gradually improved, and today he is back to feeling good.

Still, when Holthus, now 71, was able to return to work last spring, his friends set up a large, padded, faux-leather armchair at his familiar position on an elevated training stand near the six-furlong pole on the Churchill backstretch. This week, as Derby visitors have begun swarming the stable area, some have noticed how the chair seems somewhat out of place. Indeed, mounted on a custom-built platform, the chair has a slight resemblance to a throne fit for a king.

From this idyllic vantage point, Holthus can be comfortable while monitoring his horses proceed through their daily training regimens. One of those horses is Lawyer Ron.

As the winner of his last six races, Lawyer Ron figures to be one of the top two or three wagering choices in the 132nd Derby. Since Holthus's four previous Derby starters have all been longshots, Lawyer Ron represents easily his best chance to cap a career that began in 1952 and has made him a Midwest training legend. His past Derby runners were Our Trade Winds, 13th as a mutuel-field member in 1972; Proper Reality (fourth, 27-1, 1988); Pro Prado (13th, 53-1, 2004); and Greater Good (13th, 58-1, 2005).

Holthus has a no-panic demeanor and a dry wit that has helped carry him through many difficult situations, including his health crisis last spring. Having persevered to make it back to the Derby for a third straight year, he seems to be reveling in his first-ever role as a trainer of one of the favorites, accommodating media requests while still enjoying his quiet time along the backstretch rail in his padded armchair.

For the Derby, of course, Holthus will be frontside. "This would be a heck of a seat for the Derby," he said. "Maybe I should start taking bids on it."

Busy weekend for Baffert

Bob Baffert will be racking up the frequent-flyer miles. He was in Ocala, Fla., for a sale earlier this week, then flew at Louisiville on Thursday night in order to supervise a workout by Sinister Minister on Saturday morning, as well as send out Record in Saturday afternoon's Derby Trial.

Baffert was going to get on a plane immediately after the Derby Trial in order to be in California for the workouts Sunday morning at Santa Anita for Derby contenders Bob and John and Point Determined. He then was going to return here on Tuesday, with his wife, Jill, and 16-month-old son, Bode, in tow.

"This will be Bode's first Derby," Baffert said. "He was there last year for the Oaks, but we didn't take him out on Derby Day. My goal is to get his picture taken in the Derby winner's circle before he has facial hair."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee