04/26/2006 11:00PM

Sinister Minister trio living out Derby dream

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When Sinister Minister blistered to a front-running victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland two weeks ago, a lot of the attention was given to his trainer, Bob Baffert, having a third Kentucky Derby runner this year.

While Baffert has saddled 14 previous Derby starters, winning with three, Sinister Minister was also carrying the hopes and dreams of his Las Vegas-based owners Terry Lanni, Bernie Schiappa and Ernie Moody, who have yet to have a runner in the Derby.

"Six months ago, I was out to dinner with Bernie and our respective wives and he told me a fascinating story," Lanni said. "He said he had a dream that I was leading a horse into the Churchill Downs winner's circle on Derby Day. We didn't have a Derby contender at the time, so I asked him, 'Did you catch the horse's name?' "

Schiappa didn't remember the name but he still remembers the dream.

"It was very vivid," Schiappa said. "Terry was wearing a dark suit and a bright yellow handkerchief. Then, in January, I saw a horse break its maiden impressively at Santa Anita and I called Terry and said, 'The horse's name is Sinister Minister.' "

Lanni and Schiappa have been partners in horses for years, including 1999 Breeders' Cup Mile winner, Silic. Lanni, 63, is the CEO of MGM Mirage, the second-largest casino company in the world, and is one of the most powerful men in Las Vegas. Schiappa, 61, is the general manager of the Fletcher Jones Imports car dealership in town. Schiappa says he's "not in the same league" financially, so Lanni is the money man and he is the dreamer.

Even though Baffert had yet to train a horse for them, Schiappa called him for his opinion on Sinister Minister. When Baffert concurred on the purchase, Schiappa approached Moody, who had expressed interest in owning some horses together.

"They're both great guys, and we have a box next to each other at Del Mar," Moody said of Schiappa and Lanni. "When Bernie told me about this horse, it took me all of 10 seconds to say yes."

Moody, 57, owns Action Gaming and in 1998 invented Triple-Play Poker, which allows video-poker players to play multiple hands at a time. The game has spawned Five-Pay Poker, 10-Play Poker, and other games, and the royalties have made Moody a multimillionaire. In 1991, he bought Brookside West Farm from Madeleine Paulson, widow of the late Allen Paulson, and renamed it Moody Creek Farm.

Moody has come closer to the Derby starting gate than his new partners. Two years ago, Rock Hard Ten was an up-and-coming colt, but he was number 22 on the graded-earnings list for the 20-horse field.

"I have pictures of Rock Hard Ten working out at Churchill Downs with the spires in the background, but that's as close as I've got," Moody said. "The way this has worked out so unexpectedly, it's kind of a nice payback for that disappointment."

Sinister Minister's purchase price was in the $300,000 range, Lanni said, and the horse earned $465,000 in the Blue Grass.

Sinister Minister's first start for his new connections was in the Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita on Feb. 12. He finished sixth, and then went in the California Derby at Golden Gate on March 11, finishing second to Cause to Believe. But his connections weren't discouraged.

"After the San Vicente, we talked to Bob, and he said Sinister Minister got a lot of dirt kicked in his face and we could throw that one out," Lanni said. "In the Cal Derby, he hit the rail three or four times - everyone's telling me it was only twice, I thought it was more, but I guess I'll go with two - and he still rallied back to get the lead before finally losing."

"After that race, Bob told us 'We've got a runner,' " Schiappa recalled. "Bob suggested we go in the Arkansas Derby, but I said, 'Let's take on the big boys and see what we really have,' and just like that the decision was made to go to Keeneland."

All of the owners have heard the critics say that Sinister Minister was the beneficiary of the speed-favoring Keeneland track, but they're not buying it, with Moody and Schiappa even citing a column by Andrew Beyer that discounted that notion.

"I watched all the races that day, and it was not a conveyor belt," Schiappa said. "Quite frankly, I was concerned that it would work against us, since we needed it to be speed-favoring if we were going to get in the Derby."

Bias or not, Sinister Minister put on an impressive performance, covering 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.85 and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 116, tops of any Derby prep race this year.

"We knew he was fit and would put in a strong performance," Lanni said, "but certainly didn't predict he would run that great. It was jaw-dropping."

Since then, it's all been about making travel plans. Lanni has the toughest itinerary, as he is going to Macau to oversee construction of MGM Mirage's new casino project and then flying back through Singapore and Anchorage, Alaska.

"But I wouldn't miss this for the world," he said.

"I can't wait," Schiappa said. "I wish I was going to Louisville tomorrow. I'm on pins and needles. I can't wait to see if my dream comes true."