05/04/2006 12:00AM

Speed, rating must go hand in hand

Keyed Entry, with Angel Cordero aboard, is one of the main speed horses in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Each of his three wins have come in sprint races.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky Derby is a test of which horse can run 1 1/4 miles, yet it's the first quarter-mile that begins etching the shape of the race. The American Thoroughbred has been genetically honed to a blur, and all that pure speed can turn the Derby pace furious. Or not. There are years when the fast pace fails to appear, such as 2002, when War Emblem was a gate-to-wire winner after an opening half-mile in a room-temperature 47 seconds.

This does not look like a War Emblem year.

"They're going to 22, 45 and change, there's no doubt about that," said Angel Cordero. "They're going to be flying."

All Mr. Cordero did was ride two of the fastest-paced Derby winners ever, Bold Forbes, who went to the half in 45.80 seconds in 1976, and Spend a Buck, who did the same thing in 1985. Both were strong, aggressive horses best placed on the lead, but both conserved enough energy to close the deal at 1 1/4 miles. They were racehorses, not runoffs. They had learned how best to utilize that most prized asset - speed.

"Any good horse with any quality has speed," said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. "Even a mile-and-a-half horse has speed, though it might not be speed from a standstill. But they all have to rate to some extent."

Rating. In the dictionary, the word is a noun and a verb and has about 13 different meanings, but none of them really fit the idiomatic racing expression. To rate is more like ration - to ration out that pure speed, to relax. Some horses figure it out quickly, some never.

"They're born with their own style of running," said trainer Bob Baffert, whose trio of Derby horses includes super-charged Sinister Minister. "You just have to find it."

Let the speed get too hot, and a young horse might never slow down. "Usually when that happens is when they've been brought up badly," said trainer Mike Matz, who comes to the Derby with the speedy Barbaro. "They've had some bad riders, and they get crazier and crazier."

Yet there are horses bent on breaking land-speed records regardless of what a horseman tries.

"I've had some that will not - will not, no matter how much you want them back there - turn their engines off," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who has helped teach Derby starter Private Vow to rate. "After two or three works, you realize you're just fighting any of the run out of them."

There is at least a sextet of fast-paced horses in this Derby. Which one has the right mix of mind and body to rate and maybe win?

Keyed Entry
Fastest opening half-mile: 44 seconds

This is the colt Cordero knows best, since he has worked him several times for trainer Todd Pletcher.

"Spend a Buck I only worked once, and he was very aggressive," said Cordero. "Bold Forbes and Keyed Entry, they're the strongest two I've worked."

"Strong" means difficult to hold back. Cordero said he couldn't ride Keyed Entry in a routine morning gallop; that task falls to a larger and heavier exercise rider.

Keyed Entry has won three sprints and lost his pair of two-turn races, but he rated behind a horse when he finished second in the Gotham Stakes, and he may be more settled in his races than his training.

"In the afternoon, he's a little more relaxed than in the morning," said Cordero. "But he wants to go."

Fastest opening half-mile: 46.20 seconds

Unbeaten Barbaro was just off the pace when he won the Holy Bull, just off the pace when he won the Florida Derby. But he is not a pure speed horse and has never, in the morning or afternoon, hinted at wanting to run off.

"This horse never acted that way," said Matz. "He's always acted very sensible."

In neither of his two dirt races has Barbaro been sprayed with dirt kicked back by horses in front of him, and it is never a sure thing how a fast horse will react to that baptism by soil. But Barbaro has practiced.

"You can do whatever you want with him," said Matz. "We've schooled him behind horses, and there's never been a problem."

Fastest opening half-mile: 45.60 seconds

Sweetnorthernsaint won his two sprint races by a combined 23 3/4 lengths, but standing a few feet from where his horse was getting a bath, trainer Mike Trombetta pointed and asked, "Look at him. Does he look like a sprinter? When he ran that fast sprinting you could have knocked me over with a feather."

Sweetnorthernsaint rated in third in the Gotham Stakes, and sat chilly behind a slow pace when he romped in the Illinois Derby.

"He's not a headstrong horse, and he never has been," said Trombetta.

Brother Derek
Fastest opening half-mile: 45 seconds

One factor to consider about Brother Derek, the likely Derby favorite, is his 4-year-old half-brother Swissle Stick. Brother Derek is by Benchmark, who is by Alydar, and Swissle Stick is by the sprint sire Swiss Yodeler, so there is a major difference even though they share the dam Miss Soft Sell. But Swissle Stick is so speed-crazy that trainer Wayne Lukas sent him to Los Alamitos for 870-yard Quarter Horse races. Rating is not an option.

But Brother Derek exited the Barrett's 2-year-old sale - for which young horses are trained to run a timed workout as fast as they can for a distance shorter than they'll ever race - with a different demeanor.

"Even though they put a lot of speed into him at the sale, he came out very well minded," said trainer Dan Hendricks. "They can get speed-crazy so easy. He's probably smarter than most of us."

Brother Derek has been on the lead or lapped on the leader in all of his route races. "I'm not going to send him, I'm not going to take him back," said jockey Alex Solis. "He has a high cruising speed, and he does it all naturally."

Lawyer Ron
Fastest opening half-mile: 45.80 seconds

Lawyer Ron trains like an amped-up boxer at a weigh-in. This week he could be seen cantering around the track mouth open, pulling at the bit, head turned sideways from straining forward. His exercise rider had her feet planted in the irons, holding tight. His last four workouts, dating to early March, have been the fastest of the morning.

Yet trainer Bob Holthus says, "He's never been speed-crazy or one to run off."

Lawyer Ron's race rider, John McKee, weighs 100 pounds. In a test of strength, Lawyer Ron is a 1-9 favorite. "You use your hands to control him," said McKee. "Oh, he's got a lot of speed. He'd go 22 and change if you'd let him. But he's not uncontrollable. You can do things with him. I can get him to idle down. I've always felt I've had him in hand."

But what if two horses are sizzling along in front of him?

First, there's . . .

Sharp Humor
Fastest opening half-mile: 44.40 seconds

"Yeah, he's quick," said jockey Mark Guidry. "He puts me there. Horses like that, if you nudge them at all, you'll never get them back. He's always pretty much into the bit. I can't outmuscle the horse - I have to finesse him."

Sharp Humor carried his speed finishing second to Barbaro in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, but this is a horse who has fought for the early lead in each of his seven starts.

"He's a speed horse, but he's a relaxed speed horse," said trainer Dale Romans. "You let him run, and this is no time to start rating him. We're not going to send him, but we're not taking a hold, either."

Therefore, Sharp Humor, meet . . .

Sinister Minister
Fastest opening half-mile: 44.40 seconds

Three weeks ago, Sinister Minister ran at full tilt down the Keeneland backstretch, passing the half-mile in 45.80 seconds. He won the Blue Grass Stakes by more than 12 lengths.

"If this horse was a human, he'd be Bode Miller, full out," Baffert said. "He's manageable in the morning - unless he sees something in front of him. In a race, I don't know if it's the excitement, he just goes. He runs like there's a lion chasing him."

Baffert said Sinister Minister is an entirely different kind of horse than War Emblem. "The other horse, you could get him to make the lead and he'd relax a little. [Sinister Minister] is spooky; he's green, he's looking around. He's scared to death, very scared."

Jockey Victor Espinoza can only hope he doesn't find himself where Robby Albarado was in the 1998 Derby, when he rode Sinister Minister's sire, Old Trieste. As he aged, Old Trieste gradually learned to harness his speed, but in the Derby, he stumbled leaving the gate, took off like a bat out of hell, and passed the half-mile in 45.60, leading by more than three lengths.

"I was on the backstretch just hoping to take some kind of hold," said Albarado. "But you don't want to bend him in half. I kind of knew I was in trouble."

Old Trieste finished 10th, a victim of his greatest strength - speed.