Sunday, May 20, 2007

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BALTIMORE — Everything was in front of Street Sense yesterday, and all of it was good — the finish line at Pimlico, a victory in the 132nd Preakness Stakes and the second step toward winning the first Triple Crown since 1978.

But jockey Calvin Borel sensed something lurking behind him and turned to check it out, failing to heed the timeless warning from the old pitcher, Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining.”

As Street Sense, the 6-5 post-time favorite, thundered down the stretch and Borel stole a glance over his right shoulder, something was gaining, all right. It was Curlin on the outside with Robby Albarado aboard. Within seconds, Curlin pulled even and with a final push at the finish won the Preakness by the bob of his head.

“I thought he was just going to gallop [to victory],” Borel said of Street Sense. “But things happen.”

What happened was an incredible charge by Curlin, which finished third to Street Sense in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.

A reporter mentioned to Carl Nafzger, Street Sense’s trainer, that the epic duel to the wire was “breathtaking.” Nafzger, a former bull rider who is 65 years of age and in semi-retirement, had another word for it.

“Heartbreaking,” he said. “That’s what it was. Heartbreaking. We only needed a nose.”

But Curlin owned the winning nose.

Nafzger was sitting even with the finish line as he saw his dreams vanish by the slimmest of margins. Only a few moments earlier, his hopes soared when Street Sense — in the middle of the track and entering the stretch — overtook the speed colt Hard Spun, who had seized the lead on the backstretch.

“Everybody had to get serious right then,” Nafzger said. “You don’t get serious right then, you’re not going to catch Hard Spun. I got serious. It was a [heck of a] horse race.”

One that Borel and Nafzger and many in the record crowd of 121,263 thought Street Sense would win and become the seventh of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners to take the Preakness.

“I thought it was all over when I got by Hard Spun turning for home,” Borel said. “[Street Sense] ran a big race. I really thought he was going to be a Triple Crown winner.”

“I said, ‘We’re home free,’ ” Nafzger said. “And then I see Curlin, and I said, ‘Oh, wait a minute.’ ”

Perhaps as a means of fending off a crushing disappointment, at least for the moment, Nafzger managed to laugh heartily at that. Someone noted he seemed in remarkably good spirits given what had just transpired.

“Winning’s not everything in this game,” he said. “And that’s the trouble. When you’ve got a good horse like Curlin, you’ve got a good horse like Street Sense and these other horses, you really don’t want anybody to get beat. But there’s got to be a winner.”

Noting that the Pimlico track is narrower than Churchill Downs, where his horse won the Kentucky Derby, Borel said Street Sense “got to looking at the crowd” about 40 or 50 yards from the finish. That might have been enough for Curlin, who was bearing down fast.

“Our horse was running,” Nafzger said. “Believe me, he didn’t stop. But at the same time, there’s a difference in really putting your body down trying to catch somebody. And a closer’s got an advantage over the horse in front of him if he’s gaining on him. I thought Curlin ran an unbelievable race today.”

Spirits were high in the Street Sense camp from the moment he arrived here from Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday. Workouts were excellent.

“I had the horse as good as I’ve ever had him,” Nafzger said.

“Right now, I don’t think he can get beat,” Borel told reporters Friday. “As good as he is doing, I’m positive he’d have to fall or have something happen bad for him to get beat because after I worked him this week, it was unbelievable.”

Street Sense did not fall. But Curlin provided the “something bad.”

“I really did think [Street Sense] would win today,” Nafzger said. “And he did win. He ran second, and he got beat by a nose. You can’t take anything away from the winner. But you can’t take anything away from the horse that ran second.”

Nothing except a memorable victory and a shot at the Triple Crown. Just that.

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