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Picking a winner (cont.)

Posted: Friday May 5, 2006 4:28PM; Updated: Saturday May 6, 2006 4:53PM
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5. It's all about the speed

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On Thursday morning, veteran Northern California trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who brings Cause to Believe into the Derby, mentioned the old axiom "Pace makes the race.''

A year ago there was so much pace that the race fell apart for Giacomo and Closing Argument to pick up the pieces littered all over the Churchill Downs homestretch.

On paper, it appears that there are three furiously fast horses in the Derby: Sharp Humor, Keyed Entry and Sinister Minister, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes and owner of the highest Beyer Speed Figure in the race. The common assumption on the Downs' backstretch this week is that all three would kill each other off and maybe take Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron and Sweetnorthernsaint with them, because all three of those horses like it near the front, too.

"But I'm not so sure of that,'' says Matz. "People have been talking about it so much, you wonder if everybody will take back.'' It's happened before.

In 2002, the backstretch buzz was that there was a ton of speed in the race. But when the gate opened, only War Emblem popped free and he won easily. "There actually wasn't a lot of speed in that race,'' says trainer Bob Baffert, who trained War Emblem. "I knew War Emblem would be on the lead, but when you're in that situation, you don't say anything.''

So who is fibbing this time and who is telling the truth? Will it be fast or slow? Will somebody get loose on the lead?

6. It's about the jockeys, too

The U.S. elite jockey colony is in transition. The 132nd Derby will be the first since 1983 without Jerry Bailey, Pat Day or Gary Stevens in the race. Among them, they have six Derby wins and dozens of top-flight mounts. Somebody else will step up on Saturday.

Few races test a jockey's skills like the Derby. To be sure, a jockey is a slave to circumstances. It's very easy to get hung six-wide on the first turn, pinned inside or stopped dead in the middle of a big run on the far turn. The best jockeys minimize the likelihood of getting compromised by any of these possibilities. Jose Santos put Funny Cide in perfect position three years ago. The inexperienced Stewart Elliott moved perfectly on Smarty Jones in 2004 (and it helped that he was the best horse in the field, by far).

In Saturday's Derby, Alex Solis (on Brother Derek) will be breaking from the No. 18 post and will have to avoid running too wide or too fast. Victor Espinoza (on Sinister Minister) will try to stay out of a suicidal duel with Keyed Entry.

But the jockey under the most pressure is 24-year-old John McKee, on Lawyer Ron. This is McKee's third Derby. Some say he panicked and rushed Lawyer Ron early in the Arkansas Derby, leading to a slow finish. Others say he did the right thing, putting the Lawyer in position early. Either way, one mistake in the Kentucky Derby is one too many. No horse will win under a bad ride.

7. Who might be flying at the finish?

If you mean who are the closers who might eat up the homestretch if the pace is fast, look for Steppenwolfer, Jazil, A.P. Warrior and Bob and John.

Steppenwolfer has been chasing Lawyer Ron all winter in Arkansas and might get him in a faster, more crowded race. Jazil was flying at the end of the Wood Memorial. A.P. Warrior has been getting better with trainer John Shirreffs, who also trained Giacomo. Bob and John kicked in to win the Wood. Any of them need a fast pace in front to win.

8. At least two horses have almost no chance to win the race

Seaside Retreat's prep for the toughest 3-year-old horse race in the world was a sixth-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes, 32˝ lengths behind Sinister Minister. Before that, he was second in a soft Lane's End Stakes. His highest career Beyer is 87. His trainer, Mark Casse, thinks he's ready to run big, but Seaside Retreat makes Giacomo look like Damascus.

Flashy Bull required five starts to break his maiden in October. He hasn't won since, and finished seventh in the Florida Derby five weeks ago. He is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a consortium of 17 owners as part of a company that makes horse ownership available to the common man. It's a nice concept, but Flashy Bull will not be its first Derby winner.

9. Barbaro IS good enough to win

I picked Sweetnorthernsaint in SI this week, and I'd like to have the courage to stay with him, but Barbaro and Matz have won me over. "He's going to run his race, and he's going to run well,'' Matz told me on Friday morning. This is no lightweight horseman. He has the skills to beat the overhyped five-week-layoff jinx.

10. My picks

The pace will be fast, but Barbaro will stalk, as will Sweetnorthernsaint. Barbaro will win the stretch duel and both of them will hold off A.P. Warrior, who will be the fastest of the closers. And Barbaro will win the Preakness, too.

Win: Barbaro
Place: Sweetnorthernsaint
Show: A.P. Warrior