BALTIMORE - There were 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby, but only a few made any real impact. All but four of the Derby horses have disappeared. The top three and Circular Quay are back for tomorrow's Preakness.

Street Sense beat Hard Spun by 2 1/4 lengths. Hard Spun beat Curlin by 5 3/4 lengths. So why shouldn't it go down the same way again? Well, it could, of course. It is just that it rarely happens that way.

Matchups matter in horse racing just like they matter in any other sport. Only you have to consider the matchups in the context of the larger event.

Everybody has seen the trip Calvin Borel gave Street Sense in the Derby. It essentially was the same one Street Sense got in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Each time, Street Sense ran the kind of speed figure that wins the major American races.

In the Derby, Hard Spun was fast enough to make the front, control the pace and run the other speed right out of the race. He was talented enough to keep going, running by far the fastest race of his life.

So, the question that must be asked of Street Sense and Hard Spun is simple: Was it the trips or are those two horses legitimately that good?

Even when he was winning his first four races, Hard Spun was never running all that fast. He moved into Derby contender territory when he won the Lane's End, showing that he could sit off the pace, win anyway and run fast. Now that he has proved he can run a big speed figure, Hard Spun has to be taken seriously.

In retrospect, Hard Spun's quick Derby Week workout was a sign that the colt was sitting on a huge race. At the time, it looked like a mistake. Trainer Larry Jones insisted the colt was fine. He was right.

Horses with Hard Spun's early racing profile often flame out when they are put under pressure. So far, Hard Spun is the exception. The more he is asked to do, the more he does.

So what about Street Sense? Can trainer Carl Nafzger, so brilliant at pointing for a specific race, get the colt back to peak form in just 2 weeks? Can Street Sense perform as brilliantly away from Churchill Downs, the scene of his two transcendent performances? Can he win without a dream trip?

None of the answers is at all obvious.

Street Sense's pre-Preakness workout looked very much like his pre-Derby workout, one a veteran Kentucky clocker called the best he has ever seen. Was it as good?

"I'll let you know after the Preakness," Nafzger said. "If he wins, it was."

I thought Street Sense was the most likely winner of the Derby. I just wasn't sure 9-2 was a great price to beat 19 horses. It turned out to be a bargain.

Street Sense was 15-1 when he won the BC, 9-2 in the Derby.

Obviously, those prices are history. How attractive is a horse with those kinds of questions at 4-5?

When Nafzger and owner Jim Tafel went to see Street Sense at the farm a few years ago, the farm manager told them: "He's perfect. He's only got one way to go."

Street Sense was perfect in the Derby. And it really is hard to go better than perfect.

Curlin was a close second choice in the Derby at 5-1. The colt had been totally dominant in winning his first three starts.

I thought his Derby effort proved how good a horse Curlin really might turn out to be.

Unlike Street Sense and Hard Spun, Curlin was in traffic from the start of the Derby and never got a clear run until deep in the stretch. He had to come from 14th without the rail parting like the Red Sea.

Even with that, Curlin never stopped running hard. A young, inexperienced colt with Curlin's profile of easy wins in fast times against suspect competition often falls apart when met with adversity. Curlin did the exact opposite. Still, there is the lingering thought that maybe the colt is being asked to do too much too soon.

So the Preakness question is: How much are Curlin's Derby traffic problems worth in relation to how well Street Sense and Hard Spun ran?

It is another of those questions without an obvious answer. Last time, Curlin was 5-1 to beat 19 horses. This time, assuming Street Sense will be favored and Hard Spun the second choice, Curlin likely will be around 5-1 to beat eight horses. Is that fair value? Is Curlin capable of running fast enough to win if the top two come close to duplicating their Derby performances? He wasn't far off with his win in the Arkansas Derby.

So, it really comes down to Street Sense at, say, 4-5, Hard Spun at around 2-1 or Curlin at 5-1. Without a strong opinion, I would prefer the best price. So that puts me on Curlin.

Circular Quay, sixth in the Derby, had a similar trip to Curlin. He was wide, stuck in traffic and never able to get clear running until it was too late. There is also the possibility that he was simply undertrained for the Derby, given that he hadn't raced in 8 weeks. The Derby might have gotten him ready for the Preakness.

Yes, there are five others in the race. Only the Todd Pletcher-trained Santa Anita Derby runner-up King of the Roxy appears to have any chance. After Pletcher's five Derby horses all ran so far off their best form, I have adopted a no-Pletcher policy in the Triple Crown until he wins one. If he is going to go years without winning, he will do it without me, even though Circular Quay and King of the Roxy have to be respected.

Flying First Class has run one amazing race and never come close to duplicating it. But he is fast and almost certainly will ensure that Hard Spun does not get a solo lead again. The colt, trained by that man, D. Wayne Lukas, could help set it up for Curlin or Street Sense. Or be a pacesetter for Hard Spun until Hard Spun takes over. I just can't imagine him winning.

In case you had any doubt about his intentions, Lukas, the one-time basketball coach, said: "I like to dictate the race so it will be a fullcourt press right out of the locker room."

Hard Spun's rider Mario Pino has ridden thousands of races at Pimlico. Street Sense's jockey Calvin Borel has never ridden a single race at Pimlico. Will that matter? It could, but the horses will matter more. They always do.

*

Send e-mail to jerardd@phillynews.com