05/03/2006 12:00AM

From the tag sale to the top of the heap


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There is a nifty statue of Aristides, the first Kentucky Derby winner, out by the Churchill Downs paddock. No shrine to a maiden claimer is anywhere in sight.

When a maiden runs for a claiming price, he's not projected to get much better. A work in progress is given time to develop. A maiden claimer is for sale the moment he steps in the paddock. You want him? Here, take him.

But there once was a maiden claimer named Charismatic who almost won the Triple Crown, and four more have made it into this year's Derby field. On one side are the horsemen who might have considered dropping a claim slip on Lawyer Ron, Sinister Minister, Sweetnorthernsaint, or Deputy Glitters. On the other are the people who ran them for a tag and got away with it.

"I did it because I could, not because I felt I needed to for the horse," said Mike Trombetta, Sweetnorthernsaint's trainer. "That happens in racing. We all take whatever advantage we can."

Before Trombetta started training him in late summer of his 2-year-old season, Sweetnorthernsaint had raced once - kind of. His form showed a 24-length loss in a Colonial Downs turf race, and only a couple of people knew that the Sweetnorthernsaint coming back last December was a different animal.

"I'd never let him work really fast," Trombetta said. "You don't have to work a horse into the ground to get him ready. What he had done was a privilege that only my rider and I had of knowing."

Sweetnorthernsaint won a $40,000 maiden claimer by 16 lengths, has earned $377,000, and is becoming the wise-guy Derby horse. What if someone would have claimed him?

"That would have been a career kind of mistake," said Trombetta.

Speculation this week has Lawyer Ron being the subject of a multimillion-dollar purchase. You could have gotten him for $50,000 last September in a Turfway Park maiden claimer. Lawyer Ron had finished third, third, and seventh in his first three starts.

"I was just trying to find a spot to break his maiden," trainer Bob Holthus said. "He'd just run a poor race, and I really didn't think anybody would take him."

Deputy Glitters, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, debuted last summer at Saratoga, where many of the best young horses get their start. Thing is, Deputy Glitters ran first out for a $65,000 claiming price, winning a Sept. 1 six-furlong sprint by almost 14 lengths.

"Well, that's where the trainer picked he should start," said owner Joe Lacombe, who at the time had the horse with trainer Eddie Kenneally. "He was a horse that initially most of the people weren't too impressed with, but as he worked along, they got more and more impressed with him.

"I was delighted to see him run like that," Lacombe continued, "but I was also worried that he might have been claimed. Linda Rice took the horse that finished second, so it could have happened."

Sinister Minister won the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes three races after winning a $62,500 maiden claimer. No one wanted him that day, but Bob Baffert bought him for a partnership after Sinister Minister won by eight lengths.

"He was working good for me," said former trainer Rafael Becerra. "Other people might have known he was working good, but they think maybe there's something wrong with him, and that's why you drop him."

Becerra knew he was taking a chance, knew that Sinister Minister was at least a decent horse. But could he have seen a Derby horse buried somewhere inside?

"No, no way," he said. "That's just one of those deals in this business. What you got to have is a lot of luck."