04/02/2006 11:00PM

A work is all in the details

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Brother Derek, Alex Solis up, works Sunday to prepare for the Santa Anita Derby. Trainer Dan Hendricks called the work "a chance to stretch his legs."

ARCADIA, Calif. - Brother Derek worked five furlongs last Sunday morning at Santa Anita Park in a tick or two more than a minute flat. So goes the Cliffs Notes version, and, truth be told, it was no big deal, since Brother Derek is a healthy, talented young colt on a three-stakes win streak with proven measures of speed, class, and stamina who will be firmly favored win this Saturday's Santa Anita Derby without much fuss or bother. As trainer Dan Hendricks points out:

"At this point, he should be able to work five-eighths pretty much however you want him to."

Of course, it's really not as simple as that. It never is when you're talking about a 3-year-old Thoroughbred hot on the Kentucky Derby trail. While thousands of racehorses go through similar routines every morning of the week, from Palm Meadows to Fairplex Park, there are at this time of year only a handful whose every single move is subject to high magnification. And so, it should be noted that . . .

At 8:45 a.m. on Sunday, April 2, groom Rafael Martinez draped an exercise saddle, saddle pad, green-trimmed gray saddle towel, and gray girth sleeve over the rubber-padded cross chain of stall 44 in the cinderblock Santa Anita barn housing the Dan Hendricks horses.

A few minutes later, assistant trainer Cisco Alvarado hung Brother Derek's bridle, bit, and reins on the stall door, took a deep, cleansing breath and ducked under the crosschain. Kneeling on a flattened polo bandage near Brother Derek's hind feet, Alvarado wrapped a length of cotton around the lower part of the cannon bone and ankle, smoothed it down, then began to unwind one of the Ace bandages over the cotton, down over the bulb of the heel and back up, to the midpoint of the lower leg. The tail of the wrap was fastened with two large safety pins.

Brother Derek stood politely, much to the surprise of Alvarado. At any given moment, the colt has been known to spin, duck, bite, or crowd.

"You just never know how he'll be," Alvarado said. "He's like a kid - always moving around, like he has to be doing something."

Alvarado moved to the left hind, applied the cotton, and began the bandage, at which point Brother Derek shifted his weight and spun his head as far as he could to the left. They stared at each other, then Brother Derek relented, allowing Alvarado to continue his work. Hendricks, who was paralyzed from the mid-chest downward in a motocross accident nearly two years ago, rolled up in his six-wheel, all-terrain Frontier wheelchair.

"Those safety pins go in a lot easier if you run them through your hair first," Hendricks said, peering in at the buzz-cut Alvarado. "Only you don't have any."

With the rundown bandages in place, Martinez applied the layers of tack and added Brother Derek's ring bit with a snaffle, designed for firm control without undue pressure, and used primarily for galloping. It was time to go to work. Out on the tow-ring, Hendricks rolled up, reached down and felt both of Brother Derek's front ankles, then gave the okay for Alex Solis to climb aboard and head for the track. It was 9:26 a.m.

Alvarado, on a palomino pony, led Brother Derek around the outside of the final turn to the three-eighths pole, while Hendricks sped over the rutted mud of the backstretch road and down the grandstand apron, finally stopping at his familiar spot facing the sixteenth pole.

As Brother Derek and the pony were approaching the five-eighths pole, the track alarm sounded and red lights began to flash, warning that there was a loose horse somewhere on the track. The loose horse in question scampered through the stretch and eluded an outrider just long enough to make a U-turn and head back up the stretch toward the main gap before being caught.

"I was just about to turn him loose when I heard the alarms," Alvarado said. "We just went back there in the chute behind the starting gate and waited until it was clear to go."

The work itself was a snap, with Brother Derek's last furlong faster than his first. Solis took the colt five lanes wide into the stretch and sat hard against the bit, never remotely asking his colt to run. Hendricks caught the six-furlong gallop-out in 1:12.60.

"That's fine," Hendricks said. "I just wanted to give him a chance to stretch his legs a little. Now the rest of the week will be routine, and it won't matter if it rains."

Later, back at the barn, Solis dismounted, smiling through the discomfort of a stomach virus.

"I feel a lot better now," he said, watching Brother Derek saunter in the morning sun. "Bob Baffert asked me coming back, 'Why don't you let that horse run?' I told him I hope I don't have to. But what's so amazing is that he does everything so easy. It's kind of scary to think how much better he could be."