Running scared, trainers open path to Crown

May 19, 2006|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,SUN COLUMNIST

Close the freeways and open the barns - most of the Preakness field should be in town today. Are they a little slow getting here? Maybe, but all you have to do is scan the start list to realize that we're not dealing with the fastest crop of 3-year-olds here.

Tomorrow's big race should confirm Barbaro's brilliance on the track. But even before the gates open, a bigger statement has already been made: This year the horse racing circuit is dominated by chickens, not thoroughbreds.

How else do we explain the field? These aren't also-rans; they're never-rans.

Tomorrow's Barbaro Stakes should leave the sport's owners and trainers feeling ashamed. The Michael Matz-trained Barbaro might very well reach Belmont Park with a shot at winning the Triple Crown. And when he does, everyone associated with the powerful horse had better thank the rest of the racing community for lying down and getting out of the way, paving the easiest path to the Triple Crown in recent memory.

"He's a monster. He's an absolute monster. Unless something catastrophic happens - and I hope it doesn't - everything is in his favor to win the Triple Crown. I'd like to see him do it."

That's jockey Jeremy Rose talking. He rode last year's Preakness winner, Afleet Alex, and is on Hemingway's Key tomorrow. Kind of odd to hear a rider heave such heavy praise on someone else's horse, don't you think?

But it's tough to blame Rose. He knows what everyone knows: Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, knows the tracks at Pimlico and Belmont as well as anyone. The horse is coming off the most dominant Kentucky Derby win in 60 years. And tomorrow, Barbaro will be starting out of the No. 6 post, the winningest slot in Preakness history.

The one factor, though, that the other trainers and owners could have affected was the competition. With the exception of Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint, most of the nation's best 3-year-olds are sitting this one out.

In the past 10 years, a horse has won two of the three jewels of the Triple Crown on eight occasions - the best collection of close calls in the sport's storied history. That means that in recent years, there has annually been one dominant 3-year-old, yet none has sent the fear throughout the horse racing community like Barbaro.

Typically, in the past 10 years, almost half of the Preakness field has been composed of Kentucky Derby racers. Out of the 20 horses that ran in the Derby two weeks ago, only two have decided to square off against Barbaro a second time.

Nine horses lost to Charismatic in the 1999 Kentucky Derby and still thought they could beat him at Pimlico. Four were itching for a rematch against Smarty Jones two years ago. And last year, nine horses wanted another shot at Giacomo.

This year? They're all back home, hiding under the covers and nervously gnawing hay.

The trainers will squawk about having other money-making opportunities, but the truth is, they're all scared. Bob Baffert thought he had three horses who could win in Louisville, Ky., earlier this month. After watching Barbaro smoke the field, he didn't dare enter a single one at Pimlico.

It makes you admire trainers such as Dan Hendricks and Mike Trombetta even more. Hendricks' Brother Derek finished tied for fourth at the Kentucky Derby and Trombetta's Sweetnorthernsaint finished seventh. Barbaro was just a speck on the horizon by the time those horses finished the race, yet they're both back for more.

These guys know what competition is about. They know their respective horses will only be 3 years old once, and they also know that one of horse racing's most attractive qualities is its unpredictability. After all, Preakness favorites have only won 10 of the past 25 races.

You have to listen to Hendricks talk. You forget that he's actually prepping a horse. He sounds like he's ready to leap from his wheelchair and sprint out of the No. 5 gate himself.

"I'm hoping I'm good enough to beat him," Hendricks said yesterday. "[Barbaro's] done nothing wrong. He's proven himself out to be the top 3-year-old right now. I just hope I can step up and beat him now. If I can, I'm right on top again. That's all I can hope."

I'm glad he used the word hope. Any schmo with a losing betting slip is a reminder that horse racing is built off hope. It's too bad owners and trainers have forgotten that. They're all chasing the sure thing.

By skipping out on the Preakness, they've ensured there's only one sure thing this year. His name is Barbaro.

The horse very likely could beat any and all challengers. There just aren't many willing to challenge. Thanks to panic and fear, the stage is set perfectly for what could be the sport's first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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