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May 29, 2007

No Triple Crown this year

By: SPORTS NETWORK By Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor


Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - "I think we got nipped."

Those were the words spoken by Carl Nafzger just as Street Sense and Curlin hit the wire together.

He was right. The two-time Derby winning trainer was not as euphoric this time around after watching his colt take the lead through the stretch only to be passed by Curlin right at the wire.

Curlin, magnificently trained by Steve Asmussen, got the jump on Street Sense around the far turn and looked to be the one who would pass the tiring leaders first, but then came the Derby winner from off the rail.

With one furlong to go, it appeared that Street Sense had the race in the bag. Calvin Borel, who gave another superb ride, had his charge primed for glory at the eighth pole, after pouncing on Hard Spun and C P West as if they were standing still. However, there was still one horse that failed to be left for dead.

Street Sense had already passed Curlin as the field moved through the stretch, so it must have been quite a shock for Borel to see Robby Albarado’s horse come on again at the 1/16th pole.

Horses usually do not fire twice inside the final ¼-mile to win races, especially once they get passed down the stretch, but two things occurred which made the Preakness the exception rather than the rule. First, Curlin, being the inexperienced horse he is, took a while to switch leads, causing him to lose ground to Street Sense at the 3/16th pole. Secondly, according to Borel, the Derby winner began to loaf on the lead inside the final 40 yards.

Once Curlin switched leads, he began gobbling up ground in a hurry and got up in the final jump to claim the victory. If this race were run at the 1-¼ mile Kentucky Derby distance, Curlin would have drawn off to win by much more than a head, so the better horse did win the Preakness. Add on the fact that he stumbled out of the gate and this performance, in just his fifth lifetime start, was simply remarkable. It was obvious his talent outran his inexperience.

HOW THE RACE WAS RUN

The race began according to form as Xchanger and Flying First Class battled for the lead down the backstretch. Mario Pino sat Hard Spun back in behind the early speed duel, with longshots King of the Roxy and C P West further back. Curlin kept Mint Slewlep company, while the two closers, Street Sense and Circular Quay were a good 15-17 lengths behind the pacesetters.

The only strange development during the race came when Pino sent Hard Spun to challenge the lead way too early. The track was playing quick all afternoon and the fractions for this race were exceptionally fast at 22 4/5 and 45 3/5. The Derby runner-up would have had a much better chance to win if Pino allowed Hard Spun to sit third for at least another ¼ mile instead of chasing the hot pace down the backstretch.

Hard Spun zipped his second quarter in 23 seconds flat and then proceeded to take the lead by going his third quarter in an insane 23 1/5. After running 6 furlongs in 1:09 4/5, Pino must have thought his two-length lead would hold up for more than it did, but C P West was gaining with every stride. If the 24-1 shot was able to come within a half-length of Hard Spun as quick as he did, Pino was probably wondering how long it would take before the "real" horses would come to get him.

He didn’t have to wait that long. Both Curlin and Street Sense made their moves as the field approached the top of the stretch and it was just a matter of time before they passed the tired and hard-ridden Hard Spun. From that point on, it became a two horse race and as mentioned earlier, Curlin got the job done in the final stride.

This race was supposed to be a battle of the four horses coming out of the Kentucky Derby, the three top horses, along with Circular Quay, but the Todd Pletcher-trained colt was a non-factor. Circular Quay, who was bet down to 6-1 by post time, was, as expected, last for most of the race, but he never produced his patented late kick, finishing a dull fifth, 3 ¾ lengths in front of his stablemate, King of the Roxy. Pletcher is now zero for 28 in Triple Crown races and is left to wonder why his horses fail in these big spots.

Nick Zito’s C P West, the most impressive of the new shooters, ran a bang-up fourth and should improve as the season progresses. As for the others, Mint Slewlep, the longest shot on the board was a complete waste of everyone’s time, while the two speed horses, Flying First Class and Xchanger finished last and next-to-last, respectively.

Curlin paid $8.80 as the second-choice in the betting. The exacta returned $23.30, the trifecta, with the three favorites, paid an even $50,00, while the superfecta came back at $340.30.

ON TO NEW YORK

The third and final leg of the Triple Crown will be held on June 9th at Belmont Park. It will be interesting to see which horses come back to run the grueling 1 ½ mile distance of the Belmont Stakes. Carl Nafzger has already indicated that Street Sense will not race in the Belmont and Steve Asmussen is not expected to send Curlin as well.

It’s the right move for both of these horses. Street Sense was a tired horse at the end of the Preakness and the inexperienced Curlin has already run four times since March 17. There’s no reason to push him at this time of the year.

On the other hand, Larry Jones is expected to bring Hard Spun to New York. It’s obvious that this horse runs his best races on the lead and should be the pacesetter in the Belmont.

Four Kentucky Derby runners that bypassed the Preakness are likely to challenge Hard Spun: Imawildandcrazyguy, Tiago, Nobiz Like Shobiz and Great Hunter. Some new faces that could go postward are Chelokee, an easy winner of the Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard, and Slew’s Tizzy, the winner of the Lone Star Derby at Lone Star Park.

Sightseeing is also a candidate after taking the Peter Pan Stakes the day after the Preakness at Belmont Park. Shug McGaughey’s horse ran a very credible second to Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Wood Memorial back in his previous start and would be a factor if McGaughey decides to send him.

It’s way too early to project the odds but Hard Spun, Chelokee, Nobiz Like Shobiz and Sightseeing should be the four horses taking the most action, followed by Great Hunter and Tiago. Things could change in the next couple of weeks, but at this stage in time, Chelokee looks to be coming up to the race in tip-top shape, while Great Hunter could be the value play.



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