`Down to the wire' beats Preaknesses gone haywire

Preakness Stakes

May 20, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

Between Barbaro's breakdown last year and Afleet Alex's jaw-dropping victory after buckling at the knees the year before, the Preakness hadn't lacked for drama recently. But it had been years since the race produced the best kind of racing drama - a stirring stretch duel.

Yesterday's 132nd running at Pimlico Race Course produced a classic, the best Preakness in a decade and one of the three best of the past 25 years.

Curlin's at-the-wire victory over Street Sense belongs in the same league as the 1989 duel between Easy Goer and Sunday Silence (still the best Preakness I have seen) and the 1997 three-way battle with Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit and Free House.

No wrenching breakdowns or astounding athletic moves this year - just a terrific race.

It featured no fewer than three powerful moves, the first by Hard Spun on the backstretch, the second by Street Sense as they turned for home and the third by Curlin in the stretch.

The one-two-three had a record crowd of 121,263 roaring and left Carl Nafzger, Street Sense's trainer, almost giddy at times after seeing his realistic Triple Crown bid narrowly vanish.

"Curlin is just a really good horse, and he beat us fair and square," Nafzger shrugged.

But Nafzger and the colt's owner, Jim Tafel, won't lack for nagging doubts.

"When we made the lead, I turned to Jim and said, `That's it, we're home free,'" Nafzger said.

Why not? Just as he had in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier, Street Sense had overtaken the front-running Hard Spun, ridden by Mario Pino. There was no reason to believe Street Sense wouldn't cruise on to victory, just as he had at Churchill Downs. He had passed Curlin, one of his prime challengers, on his way to the front.

But Street Sense, as brilliant as he is, has a troubling habit, Nafzger said.

"He just gets that lead and he never goes on [running hard]," the trainer said. "Today I think my horse got to the lead and thought, `I won.' He's just that kind of horse."

Racing history is full of fleet horses who were known to ease up when they were in front - the great Native Dancer did it almost every time - and while they often get away with it, the habit cost Street Sense the Preakness yesterday.

"I thought it was all over when I got by Hard Spun turning for home. I thought he was just going to gallop [to the win]," said Calvin Borel, Street Sense's jockey. "He just got to gawking 40 yards from home and he just got outrun."

Street Sense had been two lengths in front, but Curlin, a huge chestnut, kicked into high gear and started gaining down the stretch. Borel looked back once and was surprised to see the challenger bearing down on him, and then looked back again in the final furlong and was seemingly shocked to see Curlin virtually even with him.

"I just kept hearing him," Borel said.

The two horses traded the lead with every bob of their heads through the final 50 yards - Curlin took the lead when he surged, and Street Sense took the lead back when he surged. They hit the wire together in a photo finish, but Nafzger and Borel didn't need to see a photo to know they had lost.

"Congratulations!" Borel shouted to Curlin's jockey, Robby Albarado, a close friend.

And Nafzger?

"When you've seen as many races as I have, you know," he said. "I knew they had us."

He continued: "It's heartbreaking. We only needed a nose. Curlin ran a hell of a race, but we had Curlin. We should never have let him come back and get us."

It means the Triple Crown drought is at 29 years now, going back to Affirmed in 1978 as the last horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Many racing insiders thought Street Sense had an excellent shot, but Curlin was the better horse yesterday.

Curlin stumbled out of the starting gate, was seventh after a half-mile and got passed by the Kentucky Derby winner on the far turn - more than enough adversity to doom just about any horse. Asked if his heart sank a little when he saw the initial stumble, the colt's trainer, Steve Asmussen, said it sank "probably a little more than a little."

But Curlin righted himself and overcame it all when he started running down the stretch. That's good stuff - the best the Preakness has seen in a while.

"We've got two good horses here, two very good horses," Nafzger said. "We might have an Alydar-Affirmed thing. When you see horses like that running against each other, you have to appreciate it."

Indeed, they gave the Preakness the best kind of drama yesterday, a down-to-the-wire who-won-it. Forget the theatrics of the past few years. This was horse racing at its best.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

Closest margins

By a nose

Year Winner Runner-up 1989 Sunday Silence Easy Goer 1962 Greek Money Ridan 1936 Bold Venture Granville 1934 High Quest Calvacade 1928 Victorian Toro 1902 Old England Maj. Dangerfield

By a head

Year Winner Runner-up

2007 Curlin Street Sense 1997 Silver Charm Free House 1985 Tank's Prospect Chief's Crown 1969 Majestic Prince Arts and Letters 1949 Capot Palestinian 1937 War Admiral Pompoon 1932 Burgoo King Tick On 1926 Display Blondin 1922 Pillory Hea 1905 Cairngorm Kiamesha 1900 Hindus Sarmation

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