Lawyer Ron Wins Arkansas Derby (G2)
Lawyer Ron broke quickly to the lead -- faster than jockey John McKee had planned.
It was as if the horse couldn't wait to show off his speed in his final Kentucky Derby tuneup.
"He got real aggressive with me going into the turn. Fortunately enough there was some room to get through the hole, and he just kind of took over the race," McKee said. "I thought I would be third or fourth, mid-pack. We had to go to Plan B after that."
Plan B led to the same result as usual. Lawyer Ron moved ahead at the start of the backstretch and never looked back, winning the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. II) on Saturday for his sixth straight victory. Trainer Bob Holthus' chestnut colt is now 7-for-7 lifetime on dirt -- and remains one of the favorites to win three weeks from now at Churchill Downs.
The last two Arkansas Derby winners -- Smarty Jones in 2004 and Afleet Alex last year -- each went on to win two legs of the Triple Crown. Holthus hopes Lawyer Ron can continue the trend.
"They're both talented -- all three of them are -- and hopefully we can follow in their footsteps," he said.
Lawyer Ron had already won Oaklawn Park's first two big prep races for 3-year-olds -- the Southwest in February and the Rebel (gr. III) last month. He was a heavy favorite all week and paid $3.00, $2.60 and $2.20.
Steppenwolfer, the runner-up in the Southwest and third in the Rebel, was second in the Arkansas Derby, 2 3/4 lengths behind. He paid $4.40 and $3.20.
Third-place finisher Private Vow paid $3.60.
With a record crowd -- announced at 72,484 -- cheering him on, Lawyer Ron bumped into With a City at the start. But he was safely near the middle of the pack toward the inside going into the first turn.
"The only thing I asked of John was try not to get trapped on the rail," Holthus said. "Give him a place to run."
That wasn't a problem. Lawyer Ron moved quickly to the front around the turn and led by a length at the half-mile mark. From there, McKee was able to keep him ahead of the other 12 horses.
Private Vow made a bid down the stretch, but Lawyer Ron immediately pulled away at McKee's urging.
"In the stretch I was a little concerned and hit him a couple times and he just took off and I was like, 'Wow!"' McKee said.
The 71-year-old Holthus, a Hot Springs resident, has been racing at Oaklawn since 1953. His only other Arkansas Derby win came in 1988 with Proper Reality.
"Tonight I might run for governor," he said.
Holthus has had four Kentucky Derby (gr. I) horses, but this one could be his best shot at a win. Lawyer Ron is ranked No. 3 in the NTRA 3-year-old poll behind Brother Derek and Barbaro. His team came prepared this weekend with black "Lawyer Ron" hats, with the scales of justice logo above the horse's name.
Lawyer Ron's owner, James T. Hines Jr., died in February. The horse's winnings go into a trust overseen by Ron Bamberger, the lawyer the colt is named after.
Lawyer Ron covered the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:51.38 on the fast track, the slowest Arkansas Derby since 1982.
Dan Peitz, Steppenwolfer's trainer, has said all along that he thought his horse could perform well at longer distances. The Arkansas Derby -- on the final day of Oaklawn's season -- completes a progression of prep races at the Hot Springs track that includes the mile-long Southwest and the 1 1/16-mile Rebel.
The Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles. Peitz, who figured that his horse would need to finish first or second to have enough graded stakes earnings for the Kentucky Derby, was pleased with the way Steppenwolfer overcame traffic.
"I'm not saying he would have gotten to the winner, but had he had a good trip he would have made the finish closer," Peitz said. "One thing about Steppenwolfer is that he will run all day."
Private Vow has plenty of graded stakes earnings, but he had other concerns. He won four of six starts in 2005, but his only race as a 3-year-old had been a seventh-place finish in the Rebel. He finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Steppenwolfer on Saturday.
"I think he ran a good race and right now I'm happy with him," said Steve Asmussen, Private Vow's trainer. "He's still not right where I want him in fitness."
Simon Pure finished fourth, 7 1/4 lengths behind Private Vow. Then came Nob Hill Deelite, Jealous Profit, Film Fortune, Sayhellotolarry, High Cotton, Red Raymond, Superfly, New Joysey Jeff and Lane's End (gr. II) winner With a City.
Smarty Jones was the last horse to sweep the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby -- a good omen for Lawyer Ron if ever there was one.
"He flies to Kentucky Monday morning," Holthus said. "Odds for the Kentucky Derby? I think he will be no worse than second choice. Of course, I might have a bias."