05/01/2006 11:00PM

You can just call him 'Derby favorite'


TUCSON, Ariz. - Biff Lowry lives, and swims, and still writes about racing, all good news for those who follow the American racehorse, regardless of breed. It is particularly good news for those following the Derby hopeful Brother Derek.

The Lowry name has been tied to racing journalism in Southern California for decades, first through Paul Sr., the longtime racing writer of the Los Angeles Times, and then through Biff, his son, who toiled in major publicity and managerial roles at tracks from coast to coast.

Biff retired a few years ago, and he and his wife, Katye, live in the Mormon enclave of St. George, Utah. From there he wrote an engaging book on the history of Hollywood Park, and emerged from time to time to set senior swimming records in competition around North America.

Last week he resurfaced, with a fascinating tale about Saturday's Mormon hope in Louisville. The story made it clear that Lowry has lost none of his magic touch with the keys.

Tens of thousands of words have been written about Brother Derek, and countless thousands more will be written this week, but until I read Biff's account in the little St. George Spectrum, I knew few of the facts of the colt's naming and Mormon connections.

"Most likely," Biff began his narrative, "there haven't been very many - if any - race horses named after missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It's a certainty that there hasn't been a Kentucky Derby favorite named after a Mormon missionary. Until now."

Biff noted that Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner, was owned and trained by a couple of one-time Latter Day Saint missionaries, Rex Ellsworth and Meshach Tenney. But Swaps, he wrote, wasn't named for a missionary.

Brother Derek was, for Elder Derek Tillotson, a Mormon missionary currently serving a two-year tour of duty in Armenia. Elder Tillotson's father is a Salt Lake City businessman named Craig Tillotson, who owns a home in the St. George area. Tillotson and his trainer, John Brocklebank, are successful pinhookers, Tillotson bankrolling the operation, Brocklebank buying the yearlings and breaking and training them, and the pair reselling them as 2-year-olds at Pomona.

Brocklebank bought Brother Derek for Tillotson in Kentucky, where he was consigned as a yearling by Mary Caldwell, widow of famed auctioneer Tom Caldwell. He paid $150,000 for the colt, and named him for his partner's son, Elder Derek Tillotson.

"Derek is such a neat kid," Brocklebank said, "and I thought this horse had so much potential, that it just seemed like the right name for the colt. I'm Catholic, but I'm totally impressed with Latter Day Saint missionaries taking two years out of their lives to serve."

Brother Derek, the horse, has inspired the naming of another Brocklebank trainee. Craig Tillotson's 4-year-old grandson, River Knight, was at the Brocklebank barn one day and Brother Derek was playfully nipping at him. That night, young River's mother heard River praying, asking the Lord to bless Brother Derek. She asked River if he was praying for his uncle in Armenia. He said no, he was praying for his pal the horse. Brocklebank heard about the prayer.

"So I named a really nice filly we had River's Prayer," he said. "She turned out to be one of the leading 2-year-old fillies in California last year."

The rest of the story you know. Brother Derek popped some eyes in training at 2, so much so that trainer Dan Hendricks got Cecil Peacock to pay $275,000 for him.

So on Saturday, the colt conceived in California, foaled and raised on the auctioneering Caldwells' Gavel Ranch in Oregon, sold as a yearling in Kentucky, initially schooled and trained in Utah, resold in California, and named for a missionary now in Armenia, tries for Thoroughbred racing's greatest prize in Louisville.

There is one final Mormon twist, Biff Lowry wrote, to the Brother Derek story. The colt has a problem with his feet, which don't take too kindly to nails. So Ben Craft, who also served a Mormon mission, glues his shoes on for racing and removes them afterwards. Craft is a grandson of Rex Ellsworth, the best-known Morman horseman of them all.

The real Brother Derek, cloistered in his mission around 3 a.m. Armenian time Sunday morning, won't see the Derby. In his place the Crafts, the Caldwells, the Tillotsons, and the Brocklebanks will be rooting wildly for the good Brother's namesake.

Brother Derek, the missionary, will be home in six months, just in time, Lowry writes, for the Breeders' Cup Classic, also at Churchill, on Nov. 4.

Meanwhile, praise the Lord, water those Derby roses, and let those saints keep marching in on Saturday.