Monday, May 21, 2007

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BALTIMORE — What horse racing really needed — a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 29 years — evaporated early Saturday evening when Curlin rallied over the final 20 yards of the Preakness Stakes to defeat Street Sense by a long nose. The general sporting public now turns away from the races until next year’s Kentucky Derby.

But there might be a way to keep a few new viewers who developed a soft spot for jockeys Calvin Borel and Mario Pino, who were amused by trainer Larry Jones and who marveled at the athletic ability of all three horses the last two weeks.

“This is good for racing,” said Jones, trainer of Hard Spun. “I do think this is the first time that the horses that came from the Derby to here had been set up with the whole Triple Crown in mind. None of these horses went into the Derby tired.”

Horse racing needs Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin to stay healthy, return to the races this summer against each other and then battle with older horses this fall leading into the Breeders’ Cup in New Jersey.

This sport needs a rivalry. If it involves three horses and a late-bloomer like Sightseeing, so much the better.

This sport needs grudge matches. A Street Sense-Hard Spun-Curlin battle royale in the Travers in August and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (against the older star Invasor) would be off-the-charts intriguing.

And this sport needs the stars of May 2007 still competing in May 2008 instead of being retired to the breeding shed for a multimillion dollar sales figure.

Street Sense, Curlin and Hard Spun had their first chance to duel the last two weeks. Each took a different route to the Triple Crown series, and all three horses delivered.

The next probable showdown would be in the Travers.

Jones and Steve Asmussen remained noncommittal yesterday about running the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown that is run at a grueling 1 miles. Carl Nafzger all but ruled out Street Sense.

“Right now, I don’t think we probably will. There’s not really any reason to go there now,” Nafzger said. “These three horses ran their guts out the last two races.”

If Street Sense bypasses the Belmont, it’s likely he won’t race again until the first week of August at Saratoga or Monmouth as a prep for the Travers.

Curlin has only five career races. Coming back in three weeks isn’t farfetched.

“This is the stage this horse deserves, and these are the caliber of races he’s intended for,” Asmussen said. “It will all be up to him physically. Our job is to make sure he’s prepared for it.”

Hard Spun’s dam, Turkish Tryst, won at a mile-and-a-half, so Jones is confident he can make the distance.

“There’s no reason to think he can’t do it because he sure wouldn’t have to run fast early in the race,” he said. “As I said when this started, I had plans of running all three races.”

Because it hasn’t happened since 1978, the Triple Crown is one of the toughest feats in sports to pull off. Winning three times in five weeks … at three distances … at three race tracks again proved too tall a task. But once the horses recover physically, racing fans should hope more duels like the Preakness happen with regularity with the three fine colts. A sport in dire need of stars might have seen three revealed this month.

“[The Preakness] was like a match race at the end,” Curlin co-owner Jess Jackson said. “It was one champion with another potential champion. It couldn’t have gotten any better.”

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