04/17/2006 11:00PM

Sinister Minister to be a force in Derby

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The prep races for 3-year-olds this spring have produced numerous solid contenders for the Kentucky Derby. Most handicappers agree on the merits of Brother Derek, who has won four straight stakes in California; Lawyer Ron, winner of six in a row; the undefeated Barbaro; and the Maryland-based Sweetnorthernsaint, runaway winner of the Illinois Derby.

Yet none of these colts has ever given a performance like Sinister Minister, whose front-running 12 3/4-length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland was simply astonishing. On the surface at least, it was the best single effort by any member of the current 3-year-old generation. But many students of the game will refuse to accept it at face value. Was Sinister Minister just the latest in a long series of fluky front-runners carried to victory by Keeneland's notoriously speed-favoring track? Or was this a legitimate, monstrous exhibition of raw speed reminiscent of Spend a Buck and War Emblem, who ran brilliantly in their final prep races and then led all the way in the Kentucky Derby?

These are difficult handicapping questions. Only this much is certain: The presence of Sinister Minister and his brilliant speed will alter the complexion of the 132nd Derby, affecting the chances of all the leading contenders.

Before the Blue Grass, Sinister Minister had won only a maiden race in four career starts. Trainer Bob Baffert said that not a single reporter had called him before the race to ask about the colt. Sinister Minister's sole distinction was his sheer speed, but that quality prompted Baffert to take a gamble and enter him in a Grade 1 stakes at a track where speed is so often dominant.

Jockey Garrett Gomez sent Sinister Minister to the lead, tried in vain to control his speed, and then let him roll, speeding the first half-mile in 45.88 seconds - a super-fast pace. The favorites, First Samurai, Bluegrass Cat, and Strong Contender, all sat behind him, their jockeys waiting for the leader to collapse. But none could get within shouting distance.

Sinister Minister's victory was even more of a rout than the margin over longshot Storm Treasure would suggest. Third-place Strong Contender was 17 lengths behind. Fourth-place Bluegrass Cat, trainer Todd Pletcher's leading Derby candidate, was 21 lengths behind. Fifth-place First Samurai, once considered the leading member of this Thoroughbred generation, was 30 lengths behind.

But any handicapper who knows Keeneland's tendencies would view this performance with a jaundiced eye. No major track in America has such a biased racing surface, one that often gives an insuperable advantage to speed horses on the rail. As a result, the Blue Grass regularly produces fluky results. High Yield led all the way in 2000 and then finished 15th in the Derby. Millennium Wind led all the way in 2001, earning a blockbuster speed figure, and finished 11th in the Derby. Last year's one-two Blue Grass finishers, Bandini and High Limit, were 19th and 20th at Churchill Downs.

Was Sinister Minister's race a similar fluke? Maybe.

ABC analyst Randy Moss picked the speedster to win, and after the race offered this explanation: "Of the 11 two-turn races that had been run at Keeneland this spring, seven had been won by horses leading all the way. Included were 15-1, 14-1, and 12-1 longshots, and the winning margins were mostly runaways."

But the rest of Saturday's results at Keeneland don't suggest that the racetrack was biased. In two dirt sprints prior to the Blue Grass, the winners rallied from far behind, in the middle of the track. Sinister Minister was the only horse on the card who led all the way. Maybe the track was somehow different for the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass - the only race on the card around two turns - but the overall evidence suggests that this remarkable performance was legitimate.

Sinister Minister's speed figure was ambiguous, too. The Keeneland track seemed to be getting slower later in the card. I assigned Sinister Minister a Beyer Speed Figure of 116 - by far the best single effort by any member of his generation. But some of my colleagues looked at the evidence and thought it could be even higher - maybe even one of the fastest Kentucky Derby preps in history.

Even if he never duplicates this performance, Sinister Minister is going to be an important force in the Kentucky Derby. Unlike many of his brethren in the training profession, who are obsessed by teaching speed horses to relax and sit off the pace, Baffert isn't afraid of speed. He learned his profession in the Quarter Horse sport, where speed is everything; he trains in California, where speed is dominant. (D. Wayne Lukas shares a similar background and philosophy, and the two men are the most successful Kentucky Derby trainers in the last half-century.) Baffert's colt War Emblem scored a front-running victory in the 2002 Derby, and the trainer will not hesitate to send Sinister Minister aggressively to the lead on May 6.

Sinister Minister's presence and running style are especially significant because so many of the leading Derby contenders are speed horses, too. Brother Derek, the probable Derby favorite, has been on or near the lead in all of his stakes victories. Sweetnorthernsaint is a front-runner, too. Lawyer Ron, who scored his sixth straight win in Saturday's Arkansas Derby, is a speedster who has learned to sit off the pace. The trainers of all these horses envision sitting just off the pace in the Derby. But nobody's going to be sitting comfortably if Sinister Minister rockets out of the gate, flaunts his speed, and dares everybody to catch him. An interesting Kentucky Derby has become even more intriguing.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post

Best Beyers and the Derby

Sinister Minister's 116 in the Blue Grass Stakes is the best Beyer Speed Figure this year in a Kentucky Derby prep race. Here are the horses with the best Beyers in preps since 1992 and their Derby finishes (with $2 win mutuels):

YEARHORSEBEYERDERBY
2005Bellamy Road1205th
2004Read the Footnoes1137th
2003Empire Maker1112nd
2002War Emblem1121st ($43)
2001Millennium Wind11411th
2000Fusaichi Pegasus1111st ($6.60)
1999Charistmatic1081st ($64.60)
 Excellent Meeting1085th
 General Challenge10811th
1998Indian Charlie1123rd
1997Silver Charm1101st ($10)
 Free House1103rd
1996Unbridled's Song1145th
1995Serena's Song11416th
1994Holy Bull11512th
1993Diazo1095th
1992Lil E. Tee1071st ($35.60)
 Pine Bluff1075th
 Devil His Due10712th