BALTIMORE - Carl Nafzger, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, got to town just ahead of his horse yesterday, and said he didn't mind the bull's-eye on his horse's back.
A bull rider before he trained thoroughbreds, Nafzger scoffed at the idea that the pressure was now on him going into Saturday's Preakness Stakes.
"Hey, we're king of the mountain," Nafzger said outside the Stakes Barn at Pimlico Race Course yesterday afternoon. "We've got [eight] horses trying to knock us off."
Last night, Street Sense was established as the 7-5 morning-line Preakness favorite ahead of 5-2 Hard Spun and 7-2 Curlin, the second- and third-place Derby finishers. Street Sense and Hard Spun swapped their Derby gates. This time, Street Sense will leave from the No. 8 gate while Hard Spun will be just inside at No. 7.
Hard Spun's trainer, Larry "Cowboy" Jones, purposefully wore his black cowboy hat to the draw. That's the metaphor he's aiming for on Saturday as his horse tries to ensure that there is no Triple Crown winner for the 29th straight year.
Jones has his own bit of history to overcome. Asked whether he was feeling confident, Jones said with a smile: "I was until the Racing Form people called me. Marty McGee [a Daily Racing Form reporter] said he's doing a study on the horses that had run second in the Derby coming back in the Preakness. He said only two had won in the last 47 years. I said, 'Thank you for that information. Now I have something else to worry about for the next three days.' "
Yesterday, the two Todd Pletcher-trained horses were given the best odds of knocking off the three top Derby finishers. The only other Derby horse here, sixth-place finisher Circular Quay, was given 8-1 odds, while Santa Anita Derby runner-up King of the Roxy was at 12-1.
The horse who could claim local knowledge, Xchanger, was put at 15-1. Four weeks ago, Xchanger handily won the Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, ridden by Ramon Dominguez, who will be on him in the Preakness.
Dominguez knows the track as well as anybody, but of the top three horses, Hard Spun's jockey, Mario Pino, has the lay of the land. Jones talks about how he hopes that having the winningest all-time rider at the Maryland racetracks gives Hard Spun a slight advantage this time over Street Sense and jockey Calvin Borel, who rides regularly at Churchill Downs.
"Here, I kind of have a little edge, a little edge," said Pino, who made a quick drive down to the draw after riding at Delaware Park yesterday afternoon, and gave Hard Spun a hard gallop yesterday morning. "I don't know how far that it is to get me there, but it's a little edge. ... I know when the turn's coming up."
Not that being on foreign turf hurt Pino at Churchill Downs. Here's an idea of how big Hard Spun ran at the Derby: Of the 29 races run since Affirmed won in 1978 on his way to the last Triple Crown, 13 horses have gone out in the lead with a quicker first half-mile than Hard Spun's 46.26 seconds. Of those, only one finished the Derby better than 10th - 1985 winner Spend a Buck.
Most horses going that fast then quickly fade, and most of the horses right behind Hard Spun got sizzled by the pace. Of the seven horses closest to Hard Spun after that half-mile, only one, fifth-place finisher Sedgefield, finished better than 10th. The horses who were second, third and fourth ultimately finished 20th, 17th and 19th.
Of course, the 2007 Derby move that will go down in history belongs to Street Sense, as Borel took his horse up the rail from 17th to fourth in just two furlongs before getting to the lead and winning by 21/4 lengths. Jones is hoping that Street Sense runs into some bad racing luck this time. He figures his own horse might slot in right behind expected front-runner Flying First Class, a speedy D. Wayne Lukas horse.
Jones also obviously hopes that his horse is the chief beneficiary if Street Sense gets that tough trip. The odds suggest that Curlin, the Arkansas Derby winner, has almost as good a chance to get the better of it this time.
Nafzger said he thought it sets up as a fine race this time, regardless of the stakes.
"If you don't enjoy pressure, you're not going to be there," the trainer said as he waited for his horse to show up.