05/11/2006 12:00AM

Trombetta looking for a clean shot

Sweetnorthernsaint (center, at left) bumps with Private Vow in the first strides of the Kentucky Derby, a setback from which he could not fully recover. Sweetnorthernsaint finished seventh.

Trainer Michael Trombetta tried to take every contingency with Sweetnorthernsaint this spring. He first tested the waters against the nation's elite 3-year-olds by making a short van ride from Maryland to New York for the Gotham Stakes. After assessing the relative merits of the potential runners in the Wood Memorial and Illinois Derby, Trombetta decided to go to Hawthorne, where Sweetnorthernsaint won by such an impressive margin that he went off the favorite four weeks later in the Kentucky Derby.

But one jump out of the gate last Saturday at Churchill Downs, all was lost. Sweentnorthernsaint bumped solidly at the start of the Derby with Private Vow and lost valuable position. A furlong into the race, he was 18th in the 20-horse field, an impossible spot for a horse who is usually on or near the lead. Sweetnorthernsaint then knifed through the field along the rail under jockey Kent Desormeaux, and worked his way to third by the top of the stretch, but faded late and finished seventh.

"When he didn't get out there the way we wanted, our plans went up in smoke," Trombetta said Thursday on a national teleconference. "We knew the rail was not the place to be, but there was not a lot we could do about it."

Trombetta has turned the page to the , the second leg of the Triple Crown, which will be run May 20 at Pimlico. Barbaro, the overpowering winner of the Derby, figures to be a heavy favorite in the Preakness, and there are few willing to challenge him. Trombetta is based in Maryland - he trains at Laurel - and would dearly like to win his state's greatest race. But his desire to run in the Preakness is more pragmatic than emotional. He believes Sweetnorthernsaint deserves another chance against Barbaro, if for no other reason than he did not get a clean shot in the Derby.

"He needs to be in the clear," Trombetta said. "He's a free-running horse with a nice cruising speed. When he's bottled up, it's hard on him."

Sweetnorthernsaint was uncomfortable racing behind horses the first quarter-mile of the Derby. He was climbing, anxious for room. Desormeaux had to guide him around horses like a slalom racer.

"I had a bad feeling when they came through the stretch the first time," Trombetta said the morning after the Derby at Churchill Downs, while grazing Sweetnorthernsaint. "When I saw him in the crowd [Desormeaux] was trying to gather him, and this horse wanted to get into it, and there was no place for him to settle."

Sweetnorthernsaint made an extended run in the middle part of the race because he had lost position early.

"He had to put him on the move so early in the race," Trombetta said. "Most horses can't sustain a run like that."

Sweetnorthernsaint did better than most. He was still in the hunt at the quarter pole. He finished 13 lengths behind Barbaro, but half that margin was the difference between Barbaro and the rest of the field.

The day after the Derby, Sweetnorthernsaint had a couple of small nicks on the inside of his left front leg.

"That comes with the territory," Trombetta said that day. "A couple little scratches. If that's all you get out of that race, you did good.

"I wanted to run well. I'm not depressed about the outcome, because I know there's still great hope for him."

Lawyer Ron to have surgery

Trainer Bob Holthus said Thursday at Churchill Downs that Lawyer Ron would undergo surgery Friday morning to have a small bone chip removed from his right hind ankle and therefore would miss the Preakness.

Holthus said the chip is so minor that "if he was a cheap horse you wouldn't have thought anything of it." He said the colt will be out of training for 30 to 40 days and would be pointed to a late-summer campaign.

"I really hate to miss the Preakness, because I really thought he had some kind of chance to be one-two-three," said Holthus. "But we've had a pretty good run, I suppose."

The surgery was to be performed at the Rood and Riddle equine clinic in Lexington, Ky., with Lawyer Ron scheduled to return to his Churchill stall in the evening.

The announcement of the surgery ended a period of several days during which Holthus and several veterinarians, including those hired by the colt's new ownership entity, Stonewall Stallions, kept going back and forth on whether to run the horse in the Preakness.

Lawyer Ron finished 12th of 20 as the 10-1 fourth choice in the Derby.

Like Now breezes at Belmont

Like Now, upset winner of the Gotham, put in one of his slower half-mile works of the spring on Thursday morning at Belmont Park, and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin couldn't have been happier. With Garrett Gomez in the saddle, Like Now went four furlongs in 49.31 seconds over a fast main track.

McLaughlin said Like Now, who most recently ran second in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, went off his first quarter very fast, before Gomez was able to get him to relax through the final quarter of the work, which was timed in 25.51 seconds.

"He's normally a real quick work horse, every work is black-letter," McLaughlin said, referring to a description given to the fastest work of the day. "He went off like he was going to do that again. [Gomez] got him to switch off turning for home, and he went 49 and 1, which was great. Then he wanted to go again after the wire. He's glad he got a feel of him to see what he was like. There's a good chance he's going to ride him in the Preakness."

McLaughlin said that Gomez would ride Like Now provided Bob and John, whom Gomez rode in the Derby, does not run in the Preakness. Bob Baffert, the trainer of Bob and John, said Thursday he would not decide until Sunday whether to run Bob and John and/or Point Determined.

"I'm on the fence," Baffert said from his barn at Santa Anita. "I'm going back to Kentucky this weekend to look at them. I could run one, two, or none."

Fernando Jara had ridden Like Now in seven of his last eight races, winning four of them. McLaughlin said owner John Dillon was seeking a more experienced rider for the Preakness.

Though experienced, Gomez has ridden in the Preakness only once, that being a third-place finish board Concern in 1994.

Lewis Michael passing on race

Lewis Michael will bypass the Preakness and instead run on May 20 in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, according to trainer Wayne Catalano.

"We're sticking with our original plan," Catalano said. "We thought we might call an audible, but after thinking about it, we decided against it."

- additional reporting by David Grening, Marcus Hersh, and Marty McGee

Preakness contenders

Horses pointing for the 131st Preakness at Pimlico on May 20. The field will be limited to 14.

BarbaroM. MatzE. Prado1st, Ky. Derby
BernardiniT. AlbertraniJ. Castellano1st, Withers
Brother DerekD. HendricksA. Solis4th*, Ky. Derby
Hemingway's KeyN. ZitoJ. Rose8th, Lexington
Like NowK. McLaughlinundecided2nd, Lexington
SweetnorthernsaintM. TrombettaK. Desormeaux7th, Ky. Derby
Possible entrants
Bob and JohnB. BaffertG. Gomez17th, Ky. Derby
Point DeterminedB. BaffertR. Bejarano9th, Ky. Derby

* - Dead heat