The word around the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course is that Street Sense is the horse to beat in today's 132nd Preakness Stakes, and the horse's jockey, Calvin Borel, isn't shy about saying the scuttlebutt is right.
"I don't think he can get beat," Borel said shortly after arriving at Pimlico yesterday morning. "Something very bad would have to happen, a fall or something. If he don't fall, no way he'll get beat."
The top three finishers in the May 5 Kentucky Derby - Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin - are considered the major contenders in today's race, run over 1 3/16 miles on Pimlico's dirt track.
Street Sense will try to become the 11th horse to go to the Belmont Stakes with the opportunity to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed became the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978.
Borel is brimming, gushing about the multiple gears Street Sense has and the horse's quick feet, which allow him to speed through a hole before it closes. But as a crowd of media gathered on a chilly morning to watch Street Sense get a bath, trainer Carl Nafzger took the opposite approach, trying to downplay expectations.
"I'm as confident as I can be before a horse race," Nafzger said. "You've always got to remember it is a horse race and you can get beat. Horse racing is very simple. ... You don't make mistakes, you win. Making mistakes is like getting penalties in football. It's really boring, but that's the way it is."
The relatively small field of nine horses includes Flying First Class, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who is starting his 32nd Preakness entry.
In Barn A, trainer Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant, has stabled Circular Quay, a late entry, and King of the Roxy, who has been pointing to this race since finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby six weeks ago. Pletcher said he is happy to see his old boss here with a speed horse.
"This race could set up well for Circular Quay as a closer," Pletcher said of the Thunder Gulch offspring who finished sixth in the Derby. "I think he has the potential for an improved race off the Derby, where he had a wide trip and lost some ground.
"We're hoping for a slightly faster pace, and that means I'm happy to see Flying First Class here and I hope he leaves the gate running. He'll determine how fast the pace is."
It appears Pletcher won't have to worry about Lukas' trying something sneaky with his horse.
The five-time Preakness winner, who first won with Codex in 1980 and last won with Charismatic in 1999, said he believes it is good to come to a major race with a horse who has "something to say" about the outcome.
"I've never had any luck changing how my horses run," he said. "You better do what got you this far and do what your horse does best. I grew up in the Vince Lombardi era. He told everyone, `We're going to run off tackle and pull our guards.' And he made everyone else deal with it. We do the same thing."
Lukas said the difficulty for the rest of the field is deciding "do they let my horse and Hard Spun roll away? And if so, for how long? I always think in the classics the riders become more important, making those decisions. Experience counts."
But that doesn't mean Lukas is giving the edge to Mario Pino, the 28-year veteran who calls Pimlico his home. In fact, Lukas refers to the caliber of jockeys in the race this way: "You've got world-class riders and the local guy, too."
He said riders such as John Velazquez and Edgar Prado are not going to look over at Pino and be intimidated.
"But I do think riding here will make a difference to Pino," Lukas said. "When he looks over at John and Edgar, he's going to feel better about himself being here."
Trainer Larry Jones said he expects to see Pino put Hard Spun on the outside of Flying First Class to see how the race develops.
"We'll see what happens," he said. "If Wayne's horse is doing a good job, we'll just stay there, but I'm not sure Wayne will want his horse to go as fast as we want to go. And we'll have to see what Xchanger is going to do. He's fast, too."
Xchanger, whose majority owner is Baltimorean Domenico Zannino, is coming in off victory in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, where he won in what co-owner and trainer Mark Shuman called "an easy gallop."
"He ran great over this track last month, and we're looking for the same result," Zannino said.
Xchanger, Bowie Training Center-based Mint Slewlep and Nick Zito's C P West are not getting much attention. Even Curlin, who ran a strong race to finish third in the Derby, seems to be something of a Stealth fighter - lots of speed and ability but in the background until he's right on top of you doing damage.
"Up to the Derby, Curlin's races were mostly athletic," assistant trainer Scott Blasi said. "Now, they're more mental. He's a very smart horse, and he learned a lot in the Derby. He was in a situation there that he'd never been in before, and he came through it well."
At the Derby, Curlin, partially owned by Baltimore-born George Bolton, found himself trapped near the rail with dirt being kicked mercilessly in his face. He dropped back to cope and then made a strong rally to finish third.
"I'm very proud of the race he ran in the Derby," Blasi said. "Now he's going to have to move forward to beat Street Sense. ... I think we have a very confident horse."
The 132nd race
1 3/16 miles, $1 million
40 percent chance of rain, high 74
8 a.m. (10 a.m. for Corporate Village, Turfside Terrace and Clubhouse Turn Reserved)
Chs. 11, 4: 5 p.m.
WBAL (1090 AM): 5 p.m.