04/12/2006 11:00PM

Several elements smooth Derby path

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Maybe it's in the water.

The local drinking water is just one of the advantages of prepping a horse here for the Kentucky Derby, say some of the top horsemen here. The last three years, Oaklawn has been a hotbed for young talent, producing the winners of four of the last six Triple Crown races in Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex, and one of this year's Kentucky Derby favorites in Lawyer Ron.

Oaklawn is located in Hot Springs National Park, where natural springs of hot water come out of the ground. The minerals in the water are believed to be therapeutic.

"There's been several real top horses that actually had Mountain Valley water shipped all over the country with them," said Bob Holthus, who trains Lawyer Ron and who has raced here for more than 50 years. "That's the only water Nashua drank after he started racing."

Other benefits here include a temperate climate, a safe racing surface, and the schedule of stakes.

"When you're trying to prep a horse for the classics, one of the biggest hurdles you have to overcome is the weather," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won a record 13 Triple Crown races and who has a division at Oaklawn.

"If you can get a racetrack that plays safe rain or shine and get them into a program where it's a good progression like the Southwest and the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby, I think those coupled all together give you a chance to really develop a horse," Lukas said. "Working around the weather is always tough. You've got to be able to do what you want to do when you want to do it. And when you're able to do that - and I think Oaklawn lends itself to that - I think it's a very good place to prep a horse."

Tim Ritchey, who trained Afleet Alex, said that in addition to climate, he likes the scheduling of the 3-year-old preps at Oaklawn.

"The races all build up," he said. "With me, we missed the Southwest, but we went to the Mountain Valley, which was a three-quarter race, then the Rebel, a mile and a sixteenth, then the Arkansas Derby, a mile and an eighth, then three weeks later to the Kentucky Derby.

"So, you've got basically like a month between each of the early preps, and then three weeks before the Derby. Which I think three weeks is the ideal time frame."

Trainer John Servis said he felt that the progression of races and the surface were benefits in preparing Smarty Jones for the Kentucky Derby.

"I think it's a track that legs horses up pretty good," he said. "When you leave here, you can go pretty much anywhere."

Trainer Lynn Whiting won the Kentucky Derby in 1992 with Lil E. Tee, who was based at Oaklawn.

"We've just had a great set of 3-year-olds here the last three years, and people are starting to really take a serious look at Oaklawn Park as a venue to bring your horse toward the Triple Crown," he said. "And as long as we've got good weather here that we've experienced the past few years, the spotlight on Oaklawn is only going to shine brighter."

The next star can emerge Saturday in the Arkansas Derby.

Lawyer Ron at Sundance?

The brothers John and Brad Hennegan are producing and directing a documentary called "The First Saturday in May." They have been following a number of top young horses since last July, among them Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Barbaro, Stevie Wonderboy, First Samurai, Jazil, and Sharp Humor.

The documentary will be completely edited about five months after the Kentucky Derby. It will then be shopped at film festivals like the prestigious Sundance.

The Hennegans have ties to racing, as their father was a longtime official at Belmont Park. The brothers have left their jobs to film the documentary as a labor of love, their attempt to bring "the amazing stories" to the next generation and put the spotlight on horsemen, said Brad Hennegan.

Lawyer Ron's story, in particular, is a touching one, as his breeder and owner, James T. Hines Jr., died in an accidental drowning a few days before Lawyer Ron won the $250,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 25.

Lawyer Ron will become a millionaire if he wins the Arkansas Derby.

Promising sort for Whiting

The 3-year-old filly Triple It was an impressive allowance winner last weekend at Oaklawn, when she rolled to a more than five-length win and earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 86.

"We were very happy with her race," said Whiting. "We'll look for an opportunity for her at Churchill Downs, or maybe look at some minor stakes for 3-year-old fillies going short in the immediate future."

Last fall, Triple It won her maiden over Ermine, who is a candidate for the Kentucky Oaks.

* Donation, the dam of Lawyer Ron, is scheduled to be bred to Smarty Jones, who won the Arkansas Derby in 2004. Donation is owned by Reuel and Lavonne Huston.