A speedy start likely

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Jockey Kent Desormeaux remembers the first turn of the 1998 Kentucky Derby, when he was forced to make one of the most critical decisions of his career.

With a “monster pull” on the reins, he took Real Quiet back from a contentious lead pack and onto a clear path near the rail with plenty of room to run.

By the time the field entered the far turn, the leaders had worn each other out, Real Quiet had cruised into the lead and then held off Victory Gallop to win by a half length.

“I decided I wasn’t going to get involved with that lead group,” Desormeaux said. “Those horses ended up playing pingpong. I would have been part of it, and it would have winded my horse. By electing to move just a length back, I had a swan dance of a ride – without complications.”

More than one rider, including Desormeaux, may be forced to make similar split-second calls entering the first turn of next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. And that’s because the 132nd run for the roses is shaping up as a mad dash for the lead.

Rarely has a Derby been filled with so many front-running favorites.

There’s Brother Derek and Lawyer Ron, both unbeaten this year by loving the lead and getting there quickly. There’s Barbaro, who has won all five of his races the same way – hanging a half-length back and taking over around the far turn.

Add a group of speed demons such as Sinister Minister, Sharp Humor and even Keyed Entry, and it’s not hard to imagine a wild scramble for position as a full field of 20 3-year-olds comes buzzing past the crowd at Churchill Downs the first time.

“It’ll be a fireball into the first turn, a mass of speed going down through there,” said trainer John Ward, who won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos. “I’ll be surprised if the dirt doesn’t explode into flames, the pace will be so hot.”

Banging and bumping is the usual fare when so many horses are gunning for the same spot early on, but once position is established the rest of the 1-mile race still has to unfold. And that brings us to several other very fast horses who can crank up the speed later rather than sooner.

Among them is Illinois Derby winner Sweetnorthernsaint, with Desormeaux aboard.

“I envision myself a few lengths behind because my horse has a high cruising speed and a nice kick at the end,” the two-time Derby-winning rider said. “Can he do it after a mile? No one knows. No one knows if any of them can do it for 1 miles. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

Of course, there are the late-runners poised for a furious finish if the leaders slow down in the stretch. Jazil, A.P. Warrior and Steppenwolfer all fall in the closer category.

“No doubt there will be a mad dash at the start, but for us it’s a matter of how quickly some of them stop,” Jazil trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “There will be several of them backing up at the 3/8th pole and hopefully they don’t get in our way when we’re running from the back.”

It should all add up to one of the most competitive Derbies in quite some time.

“A lot of horses are coming into it undefeated this year, a real quality field with good records,” said Lawyer Ron’s trainer, Bob Holthus.

Here’s a glance at several top contenders:

• Brother Derek is the best of the West, sweeping the San Rafael, the Santa Catalina and the Santa Anita Derby with ease. The bay colt is bidding to become the first California bred to win the Derby since Decidedly in 1962, and likely will be the morning-line favorite.

“He’s getting stronger and seems to improve after every race,” trainer Dan Hendricks said. “It looks like he’s put on weight.”

Hendricks, paralyzed below the waist since a 2004 motocross accident, says jockey Alex Solis will have Brother Derek up front “but he’s just going to take it as it comes, and decide what to do.”

• Lawyer Ron is the best of the Southwest with a 4-for-4 mark in 06, including a sweep of the Southwest Stakes, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Smarty Jones did the same thing before winning the 2004 Derby.

The chestnut colt couldn’t win on turf or Polytrack, but is 7-for-7 on dirt and takes a six-race winning streak into Churchill Downs. When jockey John McKee climbs aboard, Lawyer Ron will be the most seasoned starter with 14 races.

“The races don’t seem to take a lot out of him,” Holthus said. “He’s durable and bounces back quick.”

• Barbaro is the best of the South, with wins this year in the Tropical Park Derby, the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby. The big bay colt is 5-for-5 and will attempt to join the likes of Smarty Jones (2004) and Seattle Slew (1977) as undefeated Derby winners.

Barbaro will be ridden by Edgar Prado and is trained by Michael Matz, a three-time Olympian in equestrian and a survivor of a plane crash 17 years ago in an Iowa cornfield.

• Bob and John, Point Determined and Sinister Minister are trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. All three have a chance to win despite different running styles.

Bob and John couldn’t beat Brother Derek in California, so Baffert sent him East and the colt won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Bob and John will likely be somewhere just behind the leaders before making a run at the lead.

Point Determined, a son of 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given, finished second to Brother Derek in the Santa Anita Derby. He likely will make his move on the turn for home.

Sinister Minister wowed ’em in the Blue Grass with a 12-length, gate-to-wire romp. And there’s no doubt the colt will try to wire the Derby field, just like Baffert’s last Derby winner, War Emblem, did in 2002.

“There’s so much speed in this Derby,” Baffert said. “There’s a lot of quality, a lot of depth. You just can’t pick one horse out and say, That horse can’t lose.”‘

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