BALTIMORE - Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Affirmed's Triple Crown. When Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense emerged at the top of the Pimlico homestretch with all the momentum and, very quickly, a substantial lead on Saturday, it surely looked like a horse would be going to Belmont Park for the seventh time in 11 years with a chance at the Triple Crown. And maybe this horse would be the one that would end the three-decade drought.
Just like he did in the Derby, Street Sense had cornered like a sports car, diving to the rail when Calvin Borel gave the signal and holding his line perfectly coming out of the turn when he came outside Hard Spun and C P West at the head of the stretch.
To Street Sense's outside, almost unnoticed, was another horse making a move. Curlin had been in front of Street Sense the entire race, but unlike the Derby winner was quite wide on the backstretch and even wider on the far turn.
Street Sense's move looked like it would trump Curlin's. The Derby winner went right by Curlin and opened up a couple of lengths.
"I told [owner] Jim [Tafel], 'We're home free,' " said Street Sense's trainer, Carl Nafzger. "Then I saw Curlin and I said, 'Wait a minute.' "
Curlin tolerates the turns but runs on the straight like a semi rolling down a steep hill. Once jockey Robby Albarado got Curlin in gear, the colt tore after Street Sense in those final 300 yards.
Borel, not believing what he was hearing, glanced back with 50 yards remaining to see his good friend Albarado and Curlin, the pair he thought he'd already disposed of.
"I thought it was all over when I got by Hard Spun turning for home," Borel said. "I thought he was just going to gallop."
This was one of those races where you start looking at the wire in the final few yards wondering if it is going to come up soon enough for the leader or if there is still time for the horse charging. There was just enough time for Curlin to win by the official margin of a head, but actually somewhere between a nose and a head, the shortest margin of defeat for a Derby winner in the Preakness.
"Heartbreaking, that's what it was," Nafzger said. "We only needed a nose. Curlin ran a hell of a race, but we had Curlin. We should have never let him come back and get us. He beat us at the wire and that's where they take the picture."
Curlin ran the mile-and-3/16ths in 1:53.46, tying the Preakness record set by Tank's Prospect (1985) and equaled by Louis Quatorze (1996). The Preakness Beyer speed figure of 111 was almost identical to Street Sense's winning Derby figure.
Curlin had been third that day, but was in traffic much of the way. The colt stumbled badly at the start of the Preakness but made his own trip from there, demonstrating the incredible talent that was evident when he crushed everything in his way in his first three starts.
Curlin did not make the first start of his career until Feb. 3. For a colt to do all this in that amount of time is really unprecedented. There is no telling how good Curlin is or might become.
Three men purchased Curlin after that first race for what has been reported as $3.5 million. There are some in the business who think the price was $5 million. Whatever, Curlin is worth way more than $5 million now.
Jess Jackson, Satish Sanan and George Bolton quickly put together the deal and had Curlin the day after his debut. The original owners retained 20 percent interest in the colt. Curlin was turned over to trainer Steve Asmussen. And there they all were in the winner's circle at Pimlico.
"We feel the horse has much more potential than he has even shown today," Jackson said. "We are hoping that potential develops as he matures . . . We throw the Derby out in our minds because he was blocked and his momentum lost three times. We never lost faith in him."
Two races before the Preakness, Mending Fences, leading the Dixie, broke down and had to be euthanized on the track. Albarado, riding Einstein in that race, lost his balance while trying to avoid the accident and ended up on the grass course, unhurt.
Einstein's trainer, Helen Pitts, was the original trainer of Curlin before the colt was purchased following his first start, proving once again that horse racing is the ultimate seesaw.
"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."
With one notable exception, the Preakness was run about how it figured to be run. Xchanger and Flying First Class tore off after the lead, setting crazy-fast fractions. Hard Spun, second in the Derby, was in a perfect spot on the backstretch, several lengths behind the no-hopers in front and several lengths in front of the field behind him.
Any jockey will tell you that is a great place to be. Hard Spun's rider, Mario Pino, could have drafted in behind the leaders. They were going to melt (in fact, they finished next-to-last and last). Instead, Pino took Hard Spun out of the pocket to the outside, which caused Hard Spun to run off after the leaders far earlier than he needed to. Racing into the quickest fractions of the race, Hard Spun made an amazing move to get the lead, but he predictably had little left for the stretch and finished third.
"[Edgar] Prado [on C P West] was coming up on the outside and we pretty well had to go," said Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones. "He wasn't going to let us set 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."
Jones was sticking up for his jockey who rode such a nice race in the Derby. The video does not support his contention. Pino could have, and should have, waited. C P West was nowhere near when Hard Spun took off. It probably would not have altered the finish, but Hard Spun would have been closer than 4 lengths.
Albarado and Borel, great friends, rode great races. And it always helps to have the right horse.
"I have always had plenty of questions about his inexperience, but his talent overcomes anything," Albarado said of Curlin.
Asmussen who set the single-season record with 555 winners in 2004, won his first Triple Crown race a few months after serving a 6-month suspension because one of his horses had a positive drug test.
"I think that I was the right person for this horse at this time," Asmussen said.
While a controversial figure in the game because many of his horses have failed drug tests, Asmussen, from a racing family, knows how to train horses. And when he got a horse with great talent, he knew just what to do.
The Belmont Stakes appears unlikely for Street Sense. Jones sounds interested with Hard Spun. Logic would suggest Curlin has done too much too soon - until you watch the colt race. He is the exception to all the rules.
"We hope that's possible," Asmussen said of the Belmont. "This is the stage this horse was meant for and I think that his races will be used in that caliber of race."
Curlin is definitely winning more races, including some of the big ones. But the colt may never be in a race any more exciting than the 132nd Preakness.
"It was almost a match race at the end," Jackson said. "It was one champion with another potential champion challenging him. It couldn't be better."
Unless, of course, you were hoping for a Triple Crown. That will have to wait - again . . . 30 years and counting, Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat all long gone, their Triple Crowns receding farther into the distance. *