Bouncing back?

The rest of the field is pinning its hopes of defeating Barbaro on a notion that the Derby winner will regress after short rest

May 20, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

Around the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course this week, they've been talking about Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro as if he were a worn-out basketball.

Will he bounce or won't he?

"We're all hoping he bounces," Like Now trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said.

In horse racing, "to bounce" means to regress after a hard race. To listen to the horsemen sending their thoroughbreds to post in the 131st Preakness Stakes today against Barbaro, it would appear to be their best chance of beating him.

"I think the big horses have a big, big chance to regress off two weeks' rest," McLaughlin said. "Barbaro, Brother Derek [and Sweetnorthernsaint]. And Bernardini is only three weeks. They're coming off huge efforts. I believe in my heart we have a big chance if they don't show up with their A-plus games."

Even Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, said after this week's draw that the horse "certainly might bounce." Then he grinned and said, "But I wouldn't want to bet on it."

Going into the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, nearly everyone had a reason to doubt the trainer and the horse who are based at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County.

Barbaro was trained by a show horse rider. Matz was bringing his horse to the Derby off five weeks' rest, something no one had done successfully in 50 years. Barbaro's high knee action style of running was better suited to a grass horse.

But now, after dominating the Derby field with a 6 1/2 -length victory for the biggest winning margin in 60 years and turning in a final quarter of 24.3 seconds, Matz sends Barbaro into his No. 6 post today as the even-money, undefeated favorite.

Where have all the critics gone?

"He's proven himself," said Dan Hendricks, who trains Brother Derek, the morning-line favorite at the Derby. "I just hope I can beat him and be back on top. I think we're as good. I hope to be better."

Only three other Derby-winning horses have come into the Preakness undefeated. All three stayed perfect and advanced to the Belmont. Of the three, only Seattle Slew in 1977 went on to win the Triple Crown. The Belmont tripped up Majestic Prince in 1969 and Smarty Jones in 2004.

But already, Barbaro has scared off most of his rivals. Of the 19 other horses he faced in the Derby, only Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint have shown up here.

Joining them to challenge Barbaro, who is 6-for-6, are six other horses: Withers Stakes winner Bernardini; Gotham winner Like Now; Greeley's Legacy, who finished fourth in the Gotham; Hemingway's Key; Diabolical; and Platinum Couple.

Only once in the past 22 years has a horse that didn't run in the Kentucky Derby won the Preakness. That was Red Bullet in 2000.

Matz, who has never been in the Preakness, acknowledged this week that getting to the winner's circle in this second jewel of the Triple Crown is going to be difficult.

"You never know how a 3-year-old is going to do coming off a two-week layoff," he said. "But [the other horses] are in the same boat we're in. I don't think anybody knows, and if they say they do, they're lying."

Hendricks hopes Barbaro bounces and can't wait to get Brother Derek in the gate to take another shot at the Derby winner. But there are questions about Brother Derek, too, and Sweetnorthernsaint, both of whom had difficult trips at Churchill Downs.

Though both Hendricks and Mike Trombetta, who trains "Saint," said there could be a different result today if they get clear, fair trips, their horses also have to answer the question of how much the Derby took out of them.

Hendricks said he'd be worried if Brother Derek hadn't emerged from the race in such fine form, and Trombetta said: "What's the old saying? What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. You can look at it that way or you can say we drained his tank and ask how fast will he recover. Pick one. We'll find out [today]."

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey considered the three horses yesterday. He said even though Barbaro had the best trip of any horse in the Kentucky Derby, the horse still expended a lot of energy, shown by his speed over the last quarter-mile.

"Edgar wasn't asking him to run," Bailey said of jockey Edgar Prado. "But he wasn't holding him back like he was on water skis, either. He was letting him run, and I don't know if Barbaro could have run faster if he was asked.

"But of those three horses - Barbaro, Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint - I think Barbaro, more than likely, will bounce back the best because he hasn't had a grueling schedule. He's the most rested."

Bailey concluded "something strange" would have to happen - a stumble at the gate, for instance, for any of the horses in today's race to get an upper hand on Barbaro.

"If everyone breaks equally, they'll all have a hard time getting an advantage on him," Bailey said.

Still there are more than three horses in this race. And trainer Nick Zito, who brings Hemingway's Key into the fray, said no one should forget about the other six.

"You have to beat them all," he said. "I understand everyone is looking at three top horses and everyone else, but it would be a foolish way to approach this race by any of the competitors."

Hendricks said Brother Derek has to stay within striking distance of Barbaro today. Trombetta wants his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, to do the same.

"Either right in front of him or well in front," Hendricks said. "We don't want to be behind him. If I had a horse I didn't believe could do that, I'd have passed. He's a good horse. He's done everything right and taken the pressure off us. I think the shorter field ... will make it easier to maneuver, but I've been in more trouble in five-horse fields than in 12 sometimes.

"Alex [Solis, Brother Derek's jockey] has to respect Barbaro. He can't think he can get him whenever he wants. He has to go out to beat him."

Bounce or no bounce, everyone's ready to go in the gate.

"Let's let them go at it," Trombetta said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."

smm2me@aol.com

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