- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

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BALTIMORE — The colt that would become Street Sense was being housed at a farm two years ago when Jim Tafel and Carl Nafzger paid a visit. Tafel had orchestrated the mating of Street Cry and Bedazzle in hopes of owning and breeding his first Kentucky Derby winner and giving Nafzger his second Derby victory.

They asked the farm manager that day about the animal’s progress.

“There’s only one thing wrong with him,” he told Nafzger and Tafel.

“What’s that?” Tafel asked.

“He’s perfect — he has only one way to go,” the farm manager replied.

Recalling that conversation this week, Nafzger said: “He never has [regressed]. He’s kept going up.”

Indeed, it’s always been onward and upward for Street Sense, who carries a 4-for-8 career record into today’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. The colt’s sprint from 17th to first in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago has fueled the usual talk that he might be the sport’s first Triple Crown winner since 1978 and might still be improving.

“This horse has kept developing and taken us everywhere with him,” Nafzger said. “It’s the horse that gets you here. It’s his ability to adapt, his ability to excel that allows us to go with him.”

Already on his way to becoming the top horse of the decade and one of the best horses of this generation, thanks to impressive wins in the biggest 2-year-old race (the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) and the biggest 3-year-old race (the Kentucky Derby), Street Sense can add to his dossier with a win in the Preakness.

Post time for the Preakness is 6:15 p.m. The 13-race card starts at 10:30 a.m. A crowd of more than 100,000 is expected at the nation’s second-oldest racetrack. Last year’s Preakness Day drew a record 118,402.

“Right now, I don’t think he can be beat,” Street Sense jockey Calvin Borel said. “As good as he’s doing, I’m positive he’d have to fall or have something [bad] happen for him to get beat. … If we don’t fall, there’s no way he’ll be getting beat.”

Everyone hopes for a safer race than last year’s debacle, during which Kentucky Derby winner and post-time favorite Barbaro burst through the starting gate before the race and then sustained multiple leg fractures in the opening seconds of the race, ending his career and, earlier this year, his life.

Today’s ninth race has been named the Barbaro Stakes, a 1-1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds. The favorite is Chelokee, trained by Michael Matz, who also conditioned Barbaro.

Bernardini was the forgotten winner of last year’s Preakness, and he was the first horse since Red Bullet in 2000 to win without running in the Derby two weeks before.

Today’s top four favorites all competed in the Derby, finishing first (Street Sense), second (Hard Spun), third (Curlin) and sixth (Circular Quay), and there is no doubt Street Sense, starting from post No. 8, has a bull’s-eye on his caboose.

“He’s the horse to beat,” Flying First Class trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “You’d be foolish to leave him out of your exactas.”

But …

“He has to go out there and do it,” Lukas added. “He’s beatable because it’s a different race, a different surface.”

The five new horses to the Triple Crown scene are C P West, Flying First Class, King of the Roxy, Mint Slewlep and Xchanger. The best of that bunch is King of the Roxy, who finished second in the Santa Anita Derby six weeks ago and his stalk-the-lead running style suits this race.

Flying First Class and Xchanger are expected to set the early pace, which could hurt Hard Spun, a horse that loathes being rated and could help horses like Street Sense and Circular Quay.

The trainers of Street Sense and Hard Spun have plotted a very specific course that they hope has their colts with energy for their second race in 14 days. Street Sense raced only twice this year before the Derby; Hard Spun had six weeks off before the Derby.

The Derby was the only focus for the Street Sense camp since last summer. After a 10-length win in the Breeders’ Cup, Street Sense didn’t return to the races for four months and two weeks.

That freshness was on full display in the Derby, when Street Sense passed 14 horses in a quarter mile before overtaking two final horses.

“The thing that makes Street Sense so dangerous is he has an extreme acceleration in a short distance of time,” Lukas said. “A lot of horses that run his style, they lay back and will make a long run. But he crowds you on your heels, and when a little bit of a hole opens up, he just pounces on you. He’s got extreme acceleration at 50 yards, and that makes him very dangerous because he doesn’t get Calvin [Borel] in trouble.”

Street Sense is expected to be held back during the first half of the race. That’s not the case for Hard Spun, who starts from post No. 7.

Hard Spun assumed the lead in the Derby and didn’t give it up until Street Sense cruised by him at the eighth pole and finished 21/4 lengths behind the winner. Because of Maryland-based jockey Mario Pino — the winningest rider in state history — Hard Spun will be the people’s favorite today and that could affect the odds.

“The Street Sense people are great, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure there’s not a Triple Crown winner in 2007,” Hard Spun trainer Larry Jones said. “If there is a Triple Crown winner, I want them to feel like they earned it, and it wasn’t handed to them.”

Pino, riding in the Preakness for the third time in his 28-year career, said his thoughts can’t be consumed with Street Sense.

“It’s not a rematch because if I start worrying about just one horse, somebody else will beat us,” he said.

If Street Sense and Hard Spun don’t run to their potential, the race becomes a wide-open affair. At the top of the list would be Curlin, who was unraced as a 2-year-old but came to the Derby with three wins by a combined 281/2 lengths. But a slow start eliminated his chances and he finished an up-the-track third at Churchill Downs.

“I don’t know if he’ll improve, but I don’t expect a drop-off,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “We’ve got an outstanding 3-year-old that’s very healthy at an extremely important time of the year and has an opportunity to win a classic.”

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