02/22/2006 1:00AM

Two have the Derby's number

Louis Hodges Jr.
Lawyer Ron emerged as a Derby threat once he began running on dirt.

PHILADELPHIA - What do you make of a horse that took four tries to win his maiden and is suddenly running like one of the fastest 3-year-olds in the country, winning his last three races by a combined 23 1/4 lengths?

What about a horse that took six tries to win his maiden, lost two more races after finally winning, and then won his next three by a combined 27 1/2 lengths, also running like one of the fastest three-year-olds in America?

Achilles of Troy got Beyer Speed Figures of 90, 82, and 82 in his first three starts, figures normally more than good enough for a 2-year-old to win his maiden. A son of Notebook, he got Lasix for his fourth start and has been unbeatable ever since. He won his maiden by 4 1/2 lengths with a 97 Beyer.

He won the Count Fleet Stakes by 14 and earned a 105 Beyer. He proved that win was no fluke when he won the Whirlaway Stakes by 4 3/4 lengths and got a 103 Beyer.

Lawyer Ron's first three starts were on grass. His next two were on the Polytrack at Turfway Park. This son of Langfuhr never got a Beyer higher than a 55 in those five starts. He won his maiden when he hit a sloppy main track at Keeneland, earning an 83 Beyer. For reasons that are not clear, trainer Bob Holthus then sent the colt back to the grass for two starts. He did get a pair of 78 Beyers, but finished third and fourth.

On Dec. 9 at Louisiana Downs, Lawyer Ron was entered in another grass race. Providentially, it came off the turf. Lawyer Ron won by 10 3/4 lengths and got a 92. The trainer apparently got the message. Lawyer Ron then won a $100,000 stakes on the main track at Evangeline Downs by 8 1/2 lengths and with a 97. His 8 1/4-length win in the Risen Star was as impressive a performance as any 3-year-old has had in 2006.

The Beyer of 106 only confirmed what seemed obvious when you watch Lawyer Ron run. This is one fast, talented colt.

Still, what do you make of these two colts? Was it really just the Lasix with Achilles of Troy? Was it just the dirt with Lawyer Ron?

Achilles of Troy is 3 for 3 with Lasix. Lawyer Ron is 4 for 4 on dirt. The evidence would strongly suggest that the addition of medication and the change in surface is exactly what is making these colts run so fast.

Any colt in the triple-digit Beyer range in January and February of his 3-year-old season has to be considered a serious Kentucky Derby contender, regardless of what went down early in his career.

Achilles of Troy is supposed to go next in the March 18 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Lawyer Ron was supposed to run Monday in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The card was canceled because of the extreme cold in Arkansas. The Southwest will now be run Saturday.

If I had to name a Derby favorite today, I could not do it. In fact, I could not name any of the likely first three Derby favorites. There are a lot of names, but nothing concrete yet, no horse that has separated himself or herself from the pack.

Smarty Jones won the Count Fleet and Southwest on his way to the 2004 Derby. That should have convinced everybody that there is no one right way anymore to get to the Churchill Downs winner's circle in the late afternoon of the first Saturday in May.

What it takes is the fastest horse.

As the end of February nears, barely two months away from Derby Week, Achilles of Troy and Lawyer Ron have the only qualifications that really matter. These two colts are plenty fast enough. If they manage to stay on the Derby trail, hold their form or even progress, we will find out if they are good enough on May 6.