Starting off right could mean a perfect finish

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Dan Hendricks easily maneuvered his wheelchair outside Barn 42 at Churchill Downs for a final chat on the day before the Kentucky Derby.

Since being paralyzed from the waist down in a motocross accident two years ago, the 47-year-old trainer has found it challenging to do his job. But in the same way Hendricks has learned to adapt, he hopes jockey Alex Solis can give his Derby favorite, Brother Derek, a smooth ride in a contentious field of 20 talented 3-year-olds.

The biggest question surrounding Saturday’s $2 million Kentucky Derby is how the race will unfold when the starting gate springs open: Will speed rule or ruin favorites Brother Derek, Barbaro and Lawyer Ron?

“We won’t be out there first, we’ll be out there right behind the speed and, hopefully, it’s a nice clean trip and not too rough,” Hendricks said Friday.

“I’d have to imagine we’d take the lead just past the quarter pole,” he added. “Usually horses in front by the eighth pole win it.”

Of course, every other Derby trainer has his own winning scenario, but Brother Derek is the horse to beat.

A winner in his three starts this year, Brother Derek is the 3-1 morning line favorite despite challengers that include Lawyer Ron, winner of six in a row, unbeaten Barbaro and a trio of horses trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert – Bob and John, Point Determined and Sinister Minister.

Michael Matz, a three-time Olympian in equestrian who survived a plane crash 17 years ago, trains Barbaro. Standing on the other end of Barn 42, he, too, had a winning ride in mind for jockey Edgar Prado.

“The ideal setup is the speed horses go out there, and like Dan’s horse, I should be in the second group,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be in good striking range when they turn for the corner down the stretch – and may the best horse win.”

A case could be made for just about every horse in the field. The key to the 132nd Derby, though, could be the first quarter mile. Start too fast, and there’s not enough energy for a finishing kick. Hang back too far, and the stretch might set up for horses who love to come from behind.

Sinister Minister is a given to set the pace following his wire-to-wire romp in the Blue Grass Stakes three weeks ago. Sharp Humor and Keyed Entry, who also love the lead, should be out front, too.

The three favorites all have similar styles, preferring to run on or just off the lead. But with a huge field, Brother Derek, Barbaro and Lawyer Ron may be farther behind than usual.

And that’s where the intrigue comes in. Who moves first? Who follows? And what about the closers like A.P. Warrior, Jazil and Steppenwolfer?

“Roll the dice,” two-time Derby winning jockey Chris McCarron said.

Last year, 50-1 long shot Giacomo won with a dramatic finishing kick. Just the opposite happened four years ago when War Emblem went wire-to-wire.

A few other Derby winning trainers are back – Shirreffs, who trains Giacomo, will send out A.P. Warrior. Barclay Tagg, who won the 2003 Derby with Funny Cide, trains Showing Up, unraced last year and 3-for-3 this year.

“There’s only one Derby and he’s only 3 years old once,” Tagg said.

Barbaro and Showing Up are both owned by Gretchen and Roy Jackson’s Lael Stable in Pennsylvania. It will be the first time owners send out two unbeaten horses in the same Derby. Smarty Jones in 2004 was the last undefeated Derby winner.

It was an interesting week for the Lawyer Ron connections. Ron Bamberger, the attorney the horse was named for by late owner Jim Hines, sold a share of the horse Thursday. The colt will still run in the blue and white silks of Hines, who died Feb. 21 of an apparent accidental drowning in the indoor swimming pool at his home.

The trainers say their work is done. Now, “it’s up to the jockeys … which is a scary thing,” Matz said.

Prado and Solis are among the top riders in the business, but neither has a Derby victory: Solis is 0-for-14; Prado 0-for-6.

“I’m praying to God that Brother Derek is the horse,” Solis said, hoping to end the longest Derby drought for a jockey.

Matz is looking for help from everywhere else: “It’s up to the gods, Edgar and Barbaro.”

And let’s not forget the voice of the closers. Dan Peitz, who trains Steppenwolfer, has sounded confident all week. The colt has run behind Lawyer Ron in Arkansas in the Southwest, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby.

“If it’s a fast pace we could be about 20 lengths out,” Peitz said. “We’ll start picking them up about the quarter pole and, if he fires, we could get a piece of it – and maybe the whole thing.”

Baffert, meanwhile, just shrugs.

“With 20 horse there’s going to be all kinds of bumping and grinding,” he said. “They might as well throw in some jumps in between.”

Post time is 6:04 p.m. EDT. The forecast calls for partly sunny skies, temperatures in the 60s and a 10 percent chance of rain.

With 20 starters, the purse will be $2,213,200, with the winner earning $1,453,200.

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