05/04/2006 12:00AM

Storybook ending, but which one?

Brother Derek is the morning-line favorite in the 132nd Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Something's gotta give. Whether it's the unbeaten record of Barbaro or Showing Up, the lengthy winning streak of Brother Derek or Lawyer Ron, or the front-runners that many trainers expect to set a blistering pace, something's gotta give in the on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

A full field of 20 was entered in this Derby, and it is one of the most compelling in years, not only because of the quality of this group of 3-year-olds, but also because of the myriad emotional story lines.

There's nary a dry eye in the house among Kentuckians once "My Old Kentucky Home" is played during the post parade, and winners of America's greatest race are frequently overcome with emotion when their horse crosses under the wire. But this year, there are several horses whose victory would make even the most callous, cynical horseplayer get misty-eyed.

Dan Hendricks, the trainer of Brother Derek, the morning-line favorite, was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in July 2004, yet has persevered with his dry wit intact. Less than two years later, he has his first Derby starter with the best horse he has ever trained. How can you not root for him?

Michael Matz, the trainer of Barbaro, achieved heroic status when he saved several children in a commercial plane crash in 1989, then went on to carry the United States flag in the closing ceremonies in the 1996 Olympic games. Have to root for him, too, right?

James T. Hines Jr., who bred and owned Lawyer Ron, died earlier this year, but his children have made sure their father's silks will be worn by jockey John McKee in the Derby even after a majority interest in the horse was sold shortly before the race. And the colt's trainer, Bob Holthus, nearly died last year from heart failure. Isn't that a storybook finish worth cheering for?

Owner Beverly Lewis, the queen of California racing, lost her king, husband Bob, earlier this year. She is here with Point Determined, and is so popular among racing insiders that she received a rousing cheer when she chose Point Determined's post position at the draw on Wednesday. If you root against her, you must not like puppies.

There are several jockeys and trainers, dedicated and respected, seeking their elusive first Derby, including jockeys Edgar Prado (who rides Barbaro) and Alex Solis (Brother Derek), and trainers Holthus and Todd Pletcher (Bluegrass Cat and Keyed Entry).

Yet in each of the last three years, the Derby was won by a trainer who was in the race for the first time. Among those hoping to keep that streak alive are Hendricks, Matz, Dale Romans (who trains Sharp Humor), and Mike Trombetta (Sweetnorthernsaint).

Holthus and Matz represent polar opposites in terms of their approach to this race. Holthus, old school, has sent Lawyer Ron to the post 14 times. He's on a six-race win streak. Matz, new school, has raced Barbaro just once in the last 13 weeks, with his most recent start five weeks ago. He has not lost in five starts.

A crowd of more than 150,000 is expected, including celebrities like Michael Jordan, Nick Lachey, Spike Lee, and Alyssa Milano. The Derby, run at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, is the 10th race on a 12-race card that begins at 11 a.m. Eastern time. Post time for the Derby is scheduled for 6:04 p.m. The race will be televised live by NBC-Sports in a 90-minute show beginning at 5 p.m.

The Weather Channel is forecasting a dry day Saturday with a high temperature of 69 degrees, following predicted thunderstorms on Thursday and some showers on Friday. If that forecast holds, the track will be fast.

The horses are fast, too. Sinister Minister and Keyed Entry, two of the likely pacesetters, drew inside posts that most likely will force their riders - Victor Espinoza and Patrick Valenzuela - to be aggressive early to prevent the pack on the outside from folding over on them.

"I don't feel comfortable with Keyed Entry next to Sinister Minister with P. Val on his back," said Bob Baffert, who trains Sinister Minister. "They might compromise the other."

Sharp Humor, who is in the middle of the gate, is also quick, and both Lawyer Ron and Brother Derek, who will be coming from the auxiliary gate, prefer to race on or near the lead.

Last year, a wilting pace set up the race for Giacomo, who rallied from 18th place in a field of 20. Those backing Cause to Believe, Jazil, Steppenwolfer, and Storm Treasure are hoping for a similar scenario. Yet in 2002, a predicted hot early pace failed to materialize, and War Emblem, ridden by Espinoza, led his 17 rivals from start to finish.

"It looks like so much speed in the race and all of a sudden everybody's taking back," Solis said. "It has happened in the Derby many times."

If Brother Derek or Lawyer Ron can relax and sit just off the pace, while avoiding getting carried wide on the first turn, he could fall into a good trip.

"I feel really strongly that he will do that if they go really fast," Solis said of Brother Derek. "I'm just going to do what he wants to do. I'm not going to be sending him or taking him back. He has such a nice way of going, a high cruising speed, I'm just going to let him place himself where he's comfortable. I don't know how my horse will find running in a field of 20. We're all in the same boat."

Barbaro, who starts from post 8, also figures to be well placed behind the speed.

"I think there's going to be plenty of speed in the race," Matz said. "That's going to be Edgar Prado's decision. He'll probably sit right off the pace, whether it's two, three, four, five, six lengths."

In addition to Sinister Minister, Baffert sends out Bob and John and Point Determined. If any of them win, Baffert will have four Derby victories, tying him with trainers D. Wayne Lukas and H.J. "Derby Dick" Thompson for second on the all-time list, behind Ben Jones with six.

John Shirreffs, who trains A. P. Warrior, is trying to become the seventh trainer to win the Derby in consecutive years. He scored at 50-1 last year with Giacomo.

Trainer Barclay Tagg won the Derby three years ago with Funny Cide, his only Derby starter. He is back again with Showing Up, who was expected to get here from New York on Thursday afternoon, making him the last of the 20 to arrive.

If all 20 start, the Derby purse will be $2,213,200, with $1,453,200 going to the winner. But the money is secondary to the prestige. This is more than a horse race. This is history. And don't think that everyone involved in this race doesn't know it, especially the jockeys, who enter the track to the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" and have to keep their horses quiet during the post parade while 150,000 are getting revved up, all the while retaining their focus on what must be done in the two minutes from the time the gate opens until the winner crosses the line.

"Your heart is beating," Solis said. "Your stomach has butterflies. You take a deep breath. But as soon as the gates open, it goes away. You have to work."

The field

Kentucky Derby
Purse: $2,000,000; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1JazilF. Jara30-1
2SteppenwolferR. Albarado20-1
3Keyed EntryP. Valenzuela30-1
4Sinister MinisterV. Espinoza15-1
5Point DeterminedR. Bejarano10-1
6Showing UpC. Velasquez30-1
7Bob and JohnG. Gomez10-1
8BarbaroE. Prado6-1
9Sharp HumorM. Guidry30-1
10A. P. WarriorC. Nakatani15-1
11SweetnorthernsaintK. Desormeaux8-1
12Private VowS. Bridgmohan30-1
13Bluegrass CatR. Dominguez30-1
14Deputy GlittersJ. Lezcano50-1
15Seaside RetreatP. Husbands100-1
16Cause to BelieveR. Baze50-1
17Lawyer RonJ. McKee5-1
18Brother DerekA. Solis4-1
19Storm TreasureD. Flores50-1
20Flashy BullM. Smith50-1