Lawyer Ron - Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Lawyer Ron loved to run.

No greater praise can be bestowed upon a Thoroughbred. He was an impossible horse not to like, from his kind disposition to his consistency and unbridled enthusiasm in the mornings and afternoons.

Although his lifetime record of 26 starts, 12 wins, four seconds, and four thirds is impressive as it is, let us remember that 11 of those starts came on the turf or Polytrack, neither of which he was particularly fond of, or at a mile and quarter, clearly not his best distance. But in his other starts - from seven furlongs to 1 1/8 miles - he compiled a record of 15 starts, 12 wins, two seconds, and a third. He earned a 106 Beyer speed figure in January of his 3-year-old year and ran a 119 and 117 at Saratoga as a 4-year-old, while setting a new track record of 1:46 3/5 in the Whitney. When stretched out to 1 1/4 miles in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he dueled with eventual Horse of the Year Curlin the length of the stretch, only to fall a neck short.

By the time I first laid eyes on Lawyer Ron at Churchill Downs prior to the Kentucky Derby, he was already an established star, riding a six-race winning streak, five of them stakes, including the Arkansas Derby, Rebel, Southwest, and Risen Star. His average margin of victory in those six races was almost 5 3/4 lengths. Because of his eagerness to run, he wasn't always the easiest ride for jockey John McKee.

In December of Lawyer Ron's 2-year-old campaign, I received an e-mail from Bill Bianco Jr., who raced a number of top horses with his father under the name Fog City Stable, including the 2005 Santa Anita Derby winner Buzzard's Bay. Bianco said he had been following a little-known colt named Lawyer Ron and all but assured me this was a special horse. Following Lawyer Ron's 10 3/4-length victory in an allowance/optional claimer at Louisiana Downs, Bianco had trainer Bob Baffert watch the race and then made an offer on the horse, but owner James T. Hines refused to sell. Hines would refuse $1-million and $2-million offers (the latter following the Risen Star). And this was after Lawyer Ron survived the claim box at Turfway Park in Sept. 2005, when anyone could have had him for $50,000.

Before being sent to trainer Bob Holthus, Lawyer Ron received his early training from Tim Glyshaw, who also said he felt the horse was going to be special. But in the beginning, he was just a face in the crowd. When Lawyer Ron developed a shin problem after turning in a series of bullet works over the hard turf course at Ellis Park, Glyshaw tried everything he could to slow him down. Several times, the colt came close to bucking his shins, but always fought through it. Training over the Polytrack helped, but he still was too aggressive. During his gallops, whenever he saw a horse working inside him he'd go after him.

Fast forward to April, 2006, two weeks before the 2006 Kentucky Derby. If there was one thing you could set your watch by it was that Lawyer Ron would be standing outside his barn at 7:45, getting saddled for his morning gallop. Standing a few feet away, waiting to get a leg up, was exercise rider Betsy Couch. Holthus, like Glyshaw, was trying to rein in Lawyer Ron and get him to relax, which is why he would send him to the track right before the renovation break when there were few horses on the track. Ron would stand on the track for 10-15 minutes watching the last of the activity before he would begin his gallop. Sometimes, however, he wanted to get right into it and had no desire to stand around.

You could see he was loving every second of his gallops, the way he would arch his neck and cock his head to the inside with his mouth open, looking at any activity on the apron. Despite having 14 starts in nine months, he carried his flesh extremely well, and seemed to be thriving on racing and training.

One morning, as he galloped by, Bob Baffert commented, "He's a pretty healthy-looking horse."

As Couch said, "He's smart, he's kind, and he's a racehorse.

One time, there was a loose horse on the track, and Couch had to get him to the outside. After the loose horse went by him, Couch turned him to the inside and dropped the reins, and Lawyer Ron went right about his business. Couch said to trainer Frank Brothers, "That's why I love this horse so much. He's just so kind."

No one was closer to Lawyer Ron than his groom, Chuck Chambers, who called him "The Big Dawg," and often referred to him as "The Dream Horse."

But the course Lawyer Ron would take in life was altered dramatically when Jim Hines was found drowned in his indoor swimming pool at his home on Feb. 20, just five days before the Southwest Stakes. That set off a series of legal matters and court battles. Hines' close friend, advisor, and attorney, Ron Bamberger, for whom the horse was named, became the executor of Hines' estate, and took control of Lawyer Ron's racing career after several of Hines' children told him they wanted to continue the racing operation. As the Derby grew near, the offers continued, but the Hines' children wanted to see their father's dream of running in the Kentucky Derby fulfilled.

Two days before the Derby, Bamberger announced that he had sold a large  interest in Lawyer Ron to an affiliate company of Audrey Haisfield's Stonewall Farm Stallion, with the stipulation that Hines' estate had the legal right to control the horse's racing career, while running him in Hines' colors. That relationship eventually resulted in a long, drawn-out lawsuit when Bamberger said Lawyer Ron would continue to race as a 4-year-old. Stonewall, of course, wanted to breed him in 2007, but Bamberger, following a court ruling three days after the Breeders' Cup, was allowed to continue racing him, unless Lawyer Ron failed to finish first or second in two consecutive races. By then, the horse was no longer in Holthus' barn, having been turned over to Todd Pletcher.

Lawyer Ron had run poorly in the Kentucky Derby, well behind Barbaro, but came out of the race with a chip in his right hind ankle, which was removed three days after the Derby at Rood & Riddle equine clinic in Lexington. Lawyer Ron missed 40 days of training, and returned nearly four months later, winning the St. Louis Derby at Fairmount Park before finishing second in the Super Derby. It was after that race that Bamberger decided to change trainers, wanting to see Lawyer Ron compete in the top New York stakes.

Holthus was at the doctor's when he was told of the decision and called his stable foreman and told him they'd be coming to take Lawyer Ron. About three minutes later, the foreman called Holthus informing him the horse was gone. Holthus did retain a breeding right. He had two wishes for Lawyer Ron, only one of which he was granted. "I just hope he runs good and lives a long time."

The following day, Pletcher called Holthus and told him he was sorry the way things turned out. Holthus had known Pletcher since he was 8-years-old, and if someone was going to get Lawyer Ron he was glad it was him instead of someone he didn't know. "At least I know he's got a good home," Holthus said.

Bamberger, who had a deep emotional connection with Lawyer Ron, not because of his name as much as seeing him run in Hines' silks and keeping his memory alive. It was difficult for him to talk about the horse and Hines without getting choked up.

Fast forward once again, this time to July 28, 2007 at Saratoga. Lawyer Ron had won the Oaklawn Handicap, but subsequently could only manage a third in the Met Mile and a second in the Salvator Mile. Now, it was the morning of the Whitney.

At 8:30, blacksmith Ray Amato was putting the final nails in Lawyer Ron's new shoes. The colt stood calmly, barely moving a muscle, as Amato's assistant, Joe Estrada, stroked his head and planted an occasional kiss on his muzzle. But Amato felt something that escaped the naked eye.

"Joe, can you bring his head around, he's layin' on me pretty good," Amato said to Estrada, as he felt the strength of Lawyer Ron pushing against him. "Come on, Ron, stand up here now. After a few minutes, Amato was unable to continue. "Joe, I'm gonna have to let him go; he's really layin' on me."

That seemingly insignificant scene took on a good deal more meaning later that afternoon when Lawyer Ron laid over his 10 opponents, who also felt the colt's strength as he powered his way to a 4 3/4-length victory in track-record time.

One of the reasons Lawyer Ron was more cooperative that year than the year before, learning how to rate kindly, was the addition of draw reins for his morning gallops. In the Whitney, a more professional Lawyer Ron sat behind the pace after breaking from the 10-post, and when John Velazquez asked him, he exploded and busted the race wide open. A month later, he romped by 8 1/4 lengths in the Woodward Stakes. Stretching out to 1 1/4 miles, which was not his best distance, he doggedly turned back the challenge of Curlin. It was only after Robby Albarado brought Curlin in closer and let him eyeball Lawyer Ron that the Preakness winner was able to thrust his neck in front right at the wire. Curlin would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic to nail down his first of two Horse of the Year titles. Lawyer Ron, like many other top-class horses in the field, floundered over the sloppy track at Monmouth Park and never threatened.

Afterward, he was retired to Stonewall Farm. On July 10, 2009, he was euthanized due to complications from colic surgery at the age of 6.

Although his life ended way too soon, it is hoped that Lawyer Ron will not be forgotten. In today's often complex racing world, he was something simple and pure: a horse who loved to run.

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