MAY 23, 2007
by James Scully
It was a great race. CURLIN (Smart Strike) got up in the final strides to nail STREET SENSE (Street Cry [Ire]) in Saturday's 132nd Preakness S. (G1), ending the Kentucky Derby (G1) winner's pursuit of the Triple Crown by a heartbreaking head, with Derby runner-up HARD SPUN (Danzig) four lengths back in third. A tremendous rivalry is developing between the top three finishers, one that all Thoroughbred racing fans are looking forward to in the Belmont S. (G1).
Curlin will be tough to handle in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Unbeaten by a combined 28 1/2 lengths in his first three starts, the Steve Asmussen charge suffered his first setback when third in the Kentucky Derby (G1). The big chestnut was shuffled far back during the early stages of the 20-horse Derby and didn't get into the race until late, finishing up for third-place honors. Curlin got off to a rough start in the Preakness, stumbling out of the gate, and both Asmussen and jockey Robby Albarado were worried entering the clubhouse turn.
"He wasn't away as clean as we were hoping for," Asmussen explained. "He was off the bridle early. Personally, I was worried about a replay of the Derby."
"My whole focus today was getting him away from the gates in order," Albarado noted. "He stumbled pretty badly leaving the gates. Obviously, I had to go to Plan B. I had to use a little more than I needed to under the wire the first time, keeping him in contention."
Exiting the far turn, Street Sense blew by Curlin and Hard Spun to seize a clear lead with less than a quarter-mile left to run. The Preakness appeared over at this point. But Curlin dramatically dug down and found more, re-rallying on the far outside to reel in the champion, catching Street Sense in the shadow of the wire for the very narrow decision. He finished 1 3/16 miles in 1:53 2/5, equaling Louis Quatorze (1996) and Tank's Prospect (1985) for the fastest Preakness ever.
"Curlin is a racehorse," Carl Nafzger said. "If he wasn't a racehorse, he wouldn't have overcome the lead that (Street Sense) had on him. He proved he's good. How good is he? Hell, that's why we run them."
I'm excited to see Curlin run again. After making his career debut on February 3, the late-starting colt posted easy victories in the Rebel S. (G3) and Arkansas Derby (G2). While visually brilliant, he didn't earn monstrous BRIS Speed figures (101 and 102) for those efforts. A handful of Kentucky Derby starters had earned better numbers in their final preps, and Curlin registered only a 99 at Churchill Downs. He finally put the Speed rating issue to rest in the Preakness, posting a 113 Speed figure, and Curlin also earned a career-best 113 Late Pace rating.
The memorable stretch drive will be overanalyzed. Some will give all the credit to Curlin, claiming that it takes an incredible horse to come back and beat a horse of Street Sense's caliber like he did. Others will put the blame on Street Sense and jockey Calvin Borel, insisting that Street Sense lost his focus and went to waiting on other horses when moving into the clear well before the wire. "He pulled up a little bit in the last 40 yards," Borel said.
I thought it was a great race.
Hard Spun broke a little slowly and secured a good spot, about three lengths behind the pacesetters, entering the first turn, but he wound rate no more and took off after the lead on the backstretch. He put away the other speed while ripping through three-quarters in 1:09 4/5, but this trip wasn't anything like the Derby when he was running free and easy on the front end by himself. Jockey Mario Pino had to ask him early when C P WEST (Came Home) offered a strong move on the far turn, and the fast pace had taken its toll by upper stretch, as Hard Spun readily gave way when Street Sense and Curlin came rolling. Hard Spun had no trouble securing third, notching a career-best 109 Speed rating in the process, and trainer Larry Jones will send him to the Belmont if he exits the race in good shape.
Hard Spun should go for it. The Belmont is held over the longest distance of ground, but it's the best Triple Crown race for front runners. The pace will be slower, with Hard Spun the probable lone speed, and he's got the pedigree to run all day as a son of Danzig out of a 1 1/2-mile stakes-winning dam. Bold Forbes regressed off a front-running performance in the Derby, finishing third by four lengths at Pimlico after dueling through a wicked pace battle (like Hard Spun), but he returned three weeks later with a wire-to-wire victory in the 1976 "Test of Champions." Commendable, Touch Gold, Thunder Gulch, Tabasco Cat, Hansel, Bet Twice, Danzig Connection, Swale, Conquistador Cielo, Affirmed and Seattle Slew have all utilized their speed en route to capturing the Belmont since then.
Barring a physical setback, Curlin will be in the Belmont field. And he'll secure a foothold atop the division with a victory. In fact, Curlin will take a huge step toward championship honors with a Belmont win. He's done a lot already this season. The divisional title could be on the line, and Street Sense's connections shouldn't be backing down from a challenge. They still have a fresh horse, with Nafzger racing Street Sense only twice prior to the Derby this year, and a better-timed move might be all he needs to beat Curlin next time.
But Nafzger threw a bucket of cold water over everybody with his statements following the Belmont.
"What's the point," Nafzger said when asked about running in the third leg of the Triple Crown.
The point is that Street Sense will be ducking the competition if his connections elect to skip the Belmont. They'll be scared to run against Curlin. Fans worldwide want to see Street Sense vs. Curlin vs. Hard Spun on June 9. Thoroughbred racing is a grand sport with great traditions. This rivalry highlights the very best of it. Yet, we could be handed a situation where one of the main principles opts out because it's difficult, leaving everybody shaking their heads in disgust. It would be a classic example of what's wrong with the sport.
Nafzger backtracked from his initial statements on Monday, and we can only hope that Street Sense indicates his readiness in the interim, leaving the decision to head to the Belmont as a no-brainer.
We'll take a look at the other challengers next week.
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