If he handles Preakness, Barbaro can go the distance

May 20, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Belmont Stakes is where Triple Crown bids go to die, but today's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course could be the event that decides whether Barbaro is the first horse in 28 years to sweep the three spring classics.

"This is the toughest hurdle for him," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a five-time Preakness winner. "If he gets by this one, you have to love him."

Since 1997, six horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to run out of gas at the end of the Belmont. Most of those six cruised at Pimlico, giving rise to the perception that the Preakness was little more than a formality, a low hurdle easily cleared as a prelude to New York's taller (actually longer) test.

But Lukas, who lacks a 2006 Preakness entry and will watch today from Louisville, Ky., said the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont could be easier for Barbaro because he was sired by Dynaformer, a stallion known for producing horses capable of running long distances.

The recent Triple Crown bids of Silver Charm and Smarty Jones, among others, ended in the Belmont's final quarter-mile, but Barbaro seemingly has the breeding to run a longer race without fading.

"I trained Dynaformer myself, and let me tell you, he could run from here to the Rocky Mountains," Lukas said. "The mile and a half shouldn't be any problem for Barbaro."

On the other hand, Lukas said, the Preakness presents potentially daunting challenges. Barbaro is accustomed to a leisurely campaign of racing once every five or six weeks, so the two-week turnaround from the Derby could be a major adjustment. And with just nine horses running today, as opposed to the cluttered Derby's 20, contenders Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint will take their best shots.

Michael Matz, who trains Barbaro, agreed with Lukas' assessment.

"I think the Preakness is going to be the hardest [remaining race]," he said. "Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek are good horses. I didn't see it, but I'm told they were compromised pretty much during the [Derby], so this will probably be a much cleaner-run race. May the best horse win."

Don't misunderstand: Lukas loves unbeaten Barbaro, as many insiders do.

"He can call the shots in any race because he is so talented and versatile," Lukas said. "He can run from in front, from close to the front, from a little farther back. He has the ability to dictate the way the race is run. You can't say that about many horses.

"He was totally dominant in Louisville, but what was really special was the way he easily put himself in position to win in a 20-horse field. He was in total control. That might be why you see a lot of people skipping the Preakness."

And though the two-week turnaround might be the only factor that brings him down, it is actually "a hell of an edge," Lukas said, that today's race is just Barbaro's second in seven weeks.

"Any trainer who tells you the two weeks doesn't bother them is lying. Everyone would always love to have more time," Lukas said. "But if you can have your horse fresher than the others, you're in better shape."

Matz was criticized in Louisville for giving Barbaro five weeks off before the Derby - it had been 50 years since a horse won the race after such a long layoff - but his regimen made better sense after the race, when he explained he wanted the horse as fresh as possible for the rest of the Triple Crown.

Rarely does a trainer acknowledge he is angling to win all three races, but Matz did - and his strategy, it seems, is based primarily on trying to survive this two-week turnaround.

After today's race, the horse will have three weeks to rest up and get ready for the Belmont.

Matz doesn't seem at all worried about the effects of the turnaround as the Preakness approaches.

"He's quite fit right now," the trainer said of his horse, an even-money morning-line favorite. Dan Hendricks, trainer of Brother Derek, the second betting choice, said the same about his horse.

"We've both got fresh horses. We've got fit horses that should be able to take that," Hendricks said. "You can't do it two or three times in a row, but right now, we could run back in a week if they'd let us."

Those two horses figure to take over in the stretch when the early speed falters today. Brother Derek tied for fourth in the Derby with a lot going against him, and California horsemen still say he is the real deal. He had won four in a row before Louisville.

"I think we're as good [as Barbaro], and hopefully, we're better," Hendricks said.

Outrunning that challenge might be the toughest obstacle left between Barbaro and history's finish line.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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