LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Where is Hard Spun headed next?
"I guess he's going into that ditch if I'm not careful," joked trainer Larry Jones, talking as he grabbed hold of his horse's reins while a groom gave Hard Spun a bath yesterday morning outside Barn 41 at Churchill Downs.
Hard Spun had just taken a couple of steps toward the narrow drainage ditch right in front of the barn. Jones didn't mind a bit that his horse was still frisky the morning after finishing second, 21/4 lengths behind Street Sense in the 133d Kentucky Derby.
Today, Hard Spun will be transported to his home barn at Delaware Park, with Jones fully expecting to take on Derby winner Street Sense again on May 19 in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
"The horse is fresh," Jones had said after Saturday's race. "That's one reason we wanted to come into this race with six weeks [without a race]. We were hoping this was the first of a three-race series. We didn't want to come in thinking this was his last hoorah. Hopefully, [Street Sense] won't like Pimlico as much as he does here. But this was a very good horse that just beat us."
If Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin - who finished third, 51/4 lengths behind Hard Spun - all race in the Preakness, they'll be the favorites. Expect Chelokee, trained by Michael Matz, to be the most highly regarded fresh horse if he gets to the race, where Matz has him aimed.
Everyone at the Derby knew going in that Street Sense, last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, is a quality racehorse - and that his jockey, Calvin Borel, has a nickname of Calvin Bo-Rail, for his favorite place on the track. Given those facts, Jones admitted to still being mystified as to how Street Sense could get through most of the field along the rail before moving outside and charging past another horse and then reeling in Hard Spun.
"If I could have had any one of the 15 jockeys between Calvin and Mario [Pino, Hard Spun's jockey] . . . just shift left a little bit, we might have made a different finish out of this," Jones said.
But Jones added this praise for Street Sense: "There were holes opening, but that horse gets in there so quick, you can't shut the door on him if you're not planning on shutting it before you ever start."
The trainer said he knew that once Street Sense got clear, he was going by Hard Spun, who had led all the way and given all his connections the idea that he was going to steal away with the race.
"At the quarter pole, turning for home, I thought we were going to win the Kentucky Derby," said Hard Spun's owner, Rick Porter of Wilmington.
But Borel was bringing his horse, making up 20 lengths in a couple of furlongs. Jones knows Borel well and has used him on his own horses often enough. Jones said he'd been telling Street Sense's jockey for three weeks: "You can make it through everybody else, but you come around me. If you're coming to my left-hand side, you better plan on being on the turf course."
Of course, Street Sense did come around outside Hard Spun.
"He showed me," Jones said good-naturedly. "He said, 'I will finish closer to the rail anyway.' "
Jones also said that he and Pino made the decision just before the race for Hard Spun to get out to the lead immediately.
"We took our best hole and we kept trying to inch away a little at a time - especially the way the track was playing," Jones said. "We didn't know until after the eighth race if that was even what we were going to do. But after I ran my filly" - Wildcat Bette B. finished last in the Humana Distaff Stakes two races before the Derby - "we pretty much came up with a game plan. . . . We're going to get up against the rail, and if we've got to get out in front to do it, that's what we're going to do."
With two weeks between races, Jones said Hard Spun would not breeze. He probably will go to Pimlico in Baltimore a couple of days before the race, to "let him see the scenery."
As for his plan at Churchill, Jones nodded toward the barn opening, offering a good-natured rebuke to any critics he believed he had picked up along the Derby trail.
"I'm probably going to work him from here to the door there, so I'll probably mess it all up, you know," Jones said, realizing that 21/4 lengths had separated his horse from history. But Hard Spun had run well enough for a first-time Derby trainer to have a last laugh on the morning after.