BALTIMORE - The horse stumbled from the starting gate, had trouble negotiating the notoriously tight turns at Pimlico Race Course, and at the top of the stretch saw Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense pass by in a flash.
And then Curlin, in his fourth month as a racehorse, blazed a path into Preakness Stakes history.
This horse, ridden by Robby Albarado, already is being called a monster, after he dug in and chased down Street Sense, and the two waged their duel down the stretch, before Curlin's head bobbed in front under the wire, finishing half of a head in front.
Today's 132d Preakness Stakes featured the closest finish in a decade and also tied a race record for the fastest ever, 1:53.46 for the 1 3/16th-mile course.
The race, seen by a Preakness record crowd of 121,263, drew immediate and unanimous raves
"It is a classic," said Jess Jackson, who put together the ownership group that purchased Curlin after his first race in February. "It was almost a match race at the end, if you know what I mean. We had one champion with another potential champion challenging him."
"This is the stage this horse was meant for," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who had watched Curlin win that first race and suggested that some of his owners buy him.
Although Street Sense had been the favorite, Curlin had been the favorite at the Derby, showing up at Churchill Downs undefeated off a 101/2-length romp in the Arkansas Derby.
"Heartbreaking, that's what it was," said Street Sense's trainer, Carl Nafzger, who said he thought he had his horse better for this one than even before his Derby win.
"We only needed a nose."
Nafzger said his suggestion would be skip the Belmont Stakes and get his horse fresh for some of the big races later in the year.
It's been a decade since the same three horses that finished on top in the Derby, did the same in the Preakness, even if the order was jumbled up. This time, Hard Spun, the Chester County-bred Kentucky Derby runner-up owned by Wilmington's Rick Porter, finished third, four lengths back.
In this one, jockey Mario Pino said he started his big move earlier than he had wanted, since he saw eventual fourth-place finisher C P West coming up behind him, and cavalry charge starting behind that.
Sitting behind speed horses Xchanger and Flying First Class as they clicked off sizzling fractions, Hard Spun opened a two-length lead on the far turn and held into the stretch. The official chart describes the rest this way: "Weakened under pressure through the final eighth."
Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, who thinks his horse will likely move on to the Belmont, said of the move behind by C P West jockey Edgar Prado: "We pretty well had to go. He wasn't going to let us sit there and go. That probably hurt us as bad as anything. We'd have loved to put that move off for another eighth of a mile, but he did well. I'm pleased."
"I didn't want to wait and let them get on top of me," Pino said. "It cold have really worked out for us right there. They were really coming hard, and there was nothing I could have done about it. I thought Street Sense was going to win when he went by."
So did Calvin Borel, Street Sense's jockey.
"I thought it was all over when I got by Hard Spun," Borel said. "I thought he was just going to gallop. But things happen."
After getting to the lead, Borel took a look back and saw that a gallop wasn't going to cut it.
He just got to gawking 40 yards from home and he just got out-run," Borel said.
The jockey said he really didn't think Curlin had the horsepower to come back after Street Sense went by him, noting that Albarado was "riding already and I was sitting, so I thought he was finished. I kept hearing him, and I looked under my arm and saw him."
"Finally, inside the eighth pole, he turned over [to] his right lead," Albarado said of when he got back to Street Sense. Then he offered his thoughts of the rest of the way: "I think I got enough time to get to him. I thought Street Sense would offer me something and he did. Curlin, he just has this way about him. He wants to win."
Albarado had taken some criticism after the Derby for not allowing his horse to fall back before the first turn.
"I wanted him to get away in order," Albarado said. "The last start and the start before, he got away in a tangle."
So this time he stumbled. Asmussen, the trainer, was asked if his heart sunk a little when he saw that stumble.
"Probably a little bit more than a little," Asmussen said with a smile. "I was worried about a replay of the Derby at that point."
Two races earlier, Albarado had slid right off the favorite of the Dixie Stakes and tumbled on to the turf course. His horse, Einstein, had leaped right over a colt named Mending Fences which had just broken down right in front of Albarado's horse.
Although the Preakness Stakes after Barbaro's 2006 breakdown avoided incident, the day did not. Mending Fences was put down after suffering multiple fractures in his right front foot. Unlike Barbaro, his fate was quickly determined because the fracture had broken through the skin.
"I was very, very lucky I didn't get hurt," Albarado said. "Actually, I was on the grass course so I kind of slid for 10, 15 feet. It was unfortunate for the horse that did break down. I was unable to avoid him. I leaped over him and leaped to the left and I lost my balance because I didn't know which he was going to go."
As for Curlin, Albarado pointed out the horse is just learning his way around racetracks.
"Mentally, he will get there eventually," the veteran jockey said of his Preakness winner.