But another pair of contenders -- Bluegrass Cat and First Samurai -- fared poorly as the Road to the Roses moved ever closer to Churchill Downs.
Of course, many Kentucky Derby winners have come up short in their final prep for the Run for the Roses. And the weekend's schedule did validate the credentials of some contenders, including Steppenwolfer and Private Vow.
Lawyer Ron picked up his sixth consecutive victory in Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park -- the race that sent Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex on to the Triple Crown wars. And he did it convincingly.
Bumped at the start and caught in tight quarters in the first turn, the Kentucky-bred son of Langfuhr got to the front entering the backstretch, ran the first 6 furlongs in 1:10.98 and still had plenty of kick to hold off the late rush of Steppenwolfer and win by 2 3/4 lengths. Private Vow was third, another 1 1/2 lengths back, and the rest of the field was running a different race.
"It was a monster performance," said winning rider John McKee. "He went 1:10 and still drew off." Lawyer Ron has never been defeated on the main track.
Steppenwolfer, a gray son of Aptitude, also ran well. Jockey Robby Albarado said he was forced to check at about the 5-16ths pole, losing momentum. When he got clear, Albarado said, Steppenwolfer put in a good move in the final furlong. The $200,0000 he earned for finishing second should ensure his place in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
Saturday's $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland was supposed to be the validation race for Bluegrass Cat and First Samurai and Strong Contender -- each of whom has been, perhaps, a step away from the top rank of Derby contenders.
Instead, it was Sinister Minster, an underachieving Bob Baffert trainee, who shipped in from California to lead all the way to an eye-popping 12 3/4-length victory. Extreme long shot Storm Treasure was second, followed by Strong Contender, Bluegrass Cat and First Samurai.
Sinister Minister, a Kentucky-bred son of Old Trieste, hasn't won since his maiden-breaker at Santa Anita in January and was second to Cause to Believe in the California Derby last time out. Saturday, he broke in the air. But when jockey Garrett Gomez got all four feet on the ground, he rushed to the lead and never looked back. He ran 1 1/8 mile on the speed-favoring Keeneland surface in 1:48.85 after a first quarter in 22.91 seconds and a half mile in 45.88.
"I knew we were going fast but I didn't knew we were going that fast," Gomez said. "I was trying to rein him in a little around the first turn and I was actually taking a little too much hold of him. So when I headed up the backside, I went ahead and let him out a notch and let him do his thing."
Baffert also trains Derby candidates Point Determined and Bob and John.
In potential Kentucky Oaks preps:
-- Diplomat Lady shipped in from California to win Thursday's $250,000 Stonerside Beaumont Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths over Lake Alice. The Forestry filly ran the 7 furlongs, 184 feet in 1:27.97 under Cornelio Velasquez and trainer Christopher Paasch said that was enough for a ticket to the Oaks. "The last couple of races we've been disappointed with her finishes," said Paasch. "I told Cornelio to let her break real sharp today. I think it got a little deep down the lane. She got a little tired in the race."
-- Miraculous Miss rallied from well back in a six-horse field to win Saturday's $150,000 Comely Stakes at Aqueduct by 1 1/4 lengths over Regal Engagement. Daytime Promise finished third. Miraculous Miss, a Kentucky-bred filly by Mr. Greeley, finished the mile on a fast track in 1:36.67 with Kent Desormeaux up for trainer Steve Klesaris.
-- Gasia came from dead last in a field of eight to win Saturday's $100,000 Instant Racing Breeders' Cup Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Caught five-wide around the first turn, the Silver Deputy filly moved up to duel for the lead down the backstretch, then got clear in the stretch to win by 1 3/4 length over Morner. Incumbent was third. Gasia is a Kentucky-bred, out of a Theatrical mare. She ran the mile in 1:39.50 with Larry Melancon aboard.
In weekend racing pointing the way to this fall's Breeders' Cup Championship races:
Filly and Mare Turf
-- Wend came four-wide on the turn for home in Saturday's $200,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland and surged clear, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Asi Siempre. Mirabilis was third. Wend, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Pulpit, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.34 under Edgar Prado. The Claiborne Farm homebred is trained by Bill Mott.
-- Paz Ciudadana surged to the lead on the backstretch during Saturday's $75,000 Irving Distaff at Lone Star Park in Texas, opened up a slip advantage and held on to win by a head over My Misty Princess. Elisa's Energy finished third. Paz Ciudadana, a 6-year-old, Chilean-bred mare, ran the 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:29.63. She is trained by Steve Asmussen for Nelson Bunker Hunt. Quincy Hamilton had the winning ride. Paz Ciudadana has won nine of her 17 lifetime starts.
-- Sun King, last of 12 at the start, was first of all at the finish of Saturday's $400,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Stakes at Keeneland. With Corey Nakatani riding for trainer Nick Zito, the 4-year-old son of Charismatic had to wait for running room on the turn, then came out and closed with a rush, drawing off to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Kazoo. Spanish Chestnut was third and the favorite, Kelly's Landing, landed last. Benefiting from an early speed duel, Sun King finished the 7 furlongs in 1:23.30.The colt finished 15th in last year's Kentucky Derby and ninth in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic yet Zito had continued to run him in routes. The Commonwealth was a one-turn experiment that worked well. "It was a tremendous race, a tremendous ride, "said Zito, who devoted most of his post-race comments to his love of racing in Kentucky. "We just love being here," said the trainer, who had won with six of his 10 starters this spring at Keeneland. "We're very lucky. I feel like angels surround me when I'm here."
-- First Samurai, who ran fifth in the Blue Grass on Saturday, might be a threat later in the year going shorter. "I don't think he wants to go a mile and an eighth," said jockey Rafael Bejarano. "I think he's better at about a mile. He's going to be a nice horse."
-- Judith's Wild Rush came with a rush in the stretch drive of Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Jacques Cartier Stakes at Woodbine, passing the pacesetters and drawing clear to win by 2 1/4 lengths. High Volt Jet was second the whole way around and Super Fuse came late to take third. Judith's Wild Rush, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Wild Rush, ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.17 under James McAleney. McAleney said he moved earlier than he would have liked. "But I knew that his heart would get big when he got dead aim on those horses and his class would carry me home," he said.
-- Admiral's Arch had to weave all over the track to get through traffic in Saturday's $100,000 Northern Spur Breeders' Cup for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park. But when all was said and done, the Florida-bred son of High Yield won by 1/2 length over Sweetening. Mr. Pursuit was third. Admiral's Arch, with Shaun Bridgmohan earning his share, ran the mile in 1:38.66.
-- Among the distaffers, Dubai Escape won her fourth race from five career starts in taking Wednesday's $200,000 Vinery Madison Stakes at Keeneland. The 4-year-old daughter of Awesome Again got off to an early lead and finished 4 3/4 lengths ahead of the runner-up, Josh's Madelyn. "I don't think anyone was going to go by her," said winning rider Edgar Prado. "She was full of run every step of the way." Dubai Escape finished the 7 furlongs in stakes-record time of 1:22.34.
-- Artie Schiller kicked off his defense of last year's victory in the Mile with Friday's $250,000 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland. And, while the 5-year-old got the lead when asked, he wasn't able to hold it, surrendering to the late run of Miesque's Approval by a nose. Good Reward was third. Miesque's Approval, a 7-year-old, Florida-bred son of Miesque's Son, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:34.06 for Eddie Castro. The other horse was coming on so fast I don't think he (Artie Schiller) saw him, said Artie Schiller's jockey Garrett Gomez.
Stratham rallied along the rail in the stretch run to capture Saturday's $100,000 La Puente Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita by 1 1/2 lengths over Genre. Lightning Hit was third. The favorite, Scootin George, scooted the wrong way in the stretch, fading to finish sixth of seven. Stratham, an Irish-bred son of Mozart, ran the mile on "good" turf in 1:36.09 with David Cohen up for trainer Tim Yakteen. "We really seemed to have a good trip throughout," said Cohen.
The way they're passing out money in New Mexico these days, it won't be long before a New Mexico-bred becomes a serious contender on the national stage. Why not Fantasmo, the easy winner of Saturday's $130,000 Copper Top Futurity at Sunland Park in the Land of Enchantment? The bay gelding led all the way, opening up a 3 3/4-length advantage by the wire. Twice the Moves, his stablemate, was second and First to Blush was third. Fantasmo, with Jorge Bordieu aboard, ran the 4 1/2 furlongs in 51.02 seconds. He is by Ghostly Moves.
In other weekend racing:
-- Joyful Winner outsprinted one-time champion Silent Witness through the final furlong of Saturday's Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup at Sha Tin in Hong Kong and went on to win by 1 length. Silent Witness, who led the way until the stretch run, held on for second and High Intelligent finished third. One year ago in this race, Silent Witness notched his 17th consecutive win. Saturday, the finishing kick wasn't there. Christophe Soumillon, who flew in from France to ride Joyful Winner, said he knew his mount "has a very strong finish so I wanted to save him for that kick." Trainer John Moore said Joyful Winner is ticketed for the Champions Mile next month and then, possibly, the Yasuda Kinen in Tokyo in June. Silent Witness's owner, Archie de Silva, said his one-time champion is "getting there" in his comeback. "We have gone from finishing seventh, to third, and now to second. Maybe he can get there next month," da Silva said.
-- Headturner picked a good time to pick up his first stakes victory. The gelded son of Anabaa swept past the pacesetters in the late stages of Saturday's Australian Derby at Royal Randwick and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths. De Beers was second and Testafiable was third. Headturner had been third in the Victoria Derby last year and had been dull in his last three starts.
Cambiocorsa battled for the lead early in Sunday's $100,000 Las Cienegas Handicap down the hillside turf course, then took complete charge and held on to win by 3/4 length over Lock and Key. Sandra's Rose was third. Cambiocorsa, a 4-year-old, California-bred filly by Avenue of Flags, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:12.60 with Jon Court up.
Abounding Truth was just up in the final strides to win Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Whimsical Stakes by a neck over High Button Shoes. Listen was third. Abounding Truth, a daughter of Proudest Romeo, picked up her seventh career win, running the 6 furlongs in 1:10.55. "She had dead aim on those horses," said winning trainer Josie Carroll, "and Patrick (Husbands) wasn't really scrubbing on her, so he had some horse underneath him. When he got to asking, she responded."
Sweet Talker moved to the leaders at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $60,000 Dahlia Stakes, opened a commanding lead and then coasted home a 1 1/2-lengths winner over Smart N Classy. Humoristic finished third in the 1-mile turf contest, clocked in 1:34.17. Sweet Talker, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Stormin Fever, was ridden to victory by Ramon Dominguez.
The Nth Degree -- the longest shot on the six-horse tote board -- stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Yankee Affair Stakes, bid three-wide on the turn and was just up with a late rush to win by a neck over the favorite, Western Kind. Procreate led but faded to finish third. The Nth Degree, a 5-year-old, Colorado-bred son of Distorted Humor, ran 5 furlongs on firm turf in 54.55 seconds with Eddie Castro in the irons.
News and Notes
Woodbine has inaugurated its first series of 2-furlong races for 2-year-olds. The first of them went to Silver Twine on Saturday. The Stormy Atlantic filly finished in 22.65 seconds, winning by 3/4 length in a $60,000 (Canadian) maiden special-weight event. ... Good racing brought out good crowds. Friday's 23,882 at Keeneland was a record for any Friday in the track's history and Saturday's 30,660 was the third-largest crowd ever at the Lexington track. Oaklawn set an all-time attendance record of 72,484 on Saturday. Lone Star Park also had big attendance increases during its opening week, with 46,164 customers through the turnstiles Thursday through Sunday compared to 39,154 in 2005.
Today's quiz (courtesy Gretchen Kieckhefer): We all know that no Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has ever gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. But has any Juvenile winner sired a Derby winner?