Preakness: a Three-Horse Race
by Trevor Whenham - 05/15/2007
Though it's certainly possible that it won't end up to be true, it sure is tempting to view the Preakness as a three-horse race. The top three finishers from the Derby - Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin - are all heading to Baltimore for the second leg of the Triple Crown. More importantly, all have come out of the Derby well, and all look to have efforts good enough to win in them. The plot got muddied a little bit by the news that Todd Pletcher would likely run back Circular Quay in the Preakness, but it still is a sound argument that the Preakness winner will come from among the top three in the Derby. The trick, of course, is figuring out which one it will be.
Street Sense will likely be the solid favorite in the field and, by any measure he deserves to be. Twice he has won the biggest race of the year for horses his age - the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, and the Derby two weeks ago. He has a knack for finding perfect trips despite facing large fields. His only loss in his last four outings was by a nose to Dominican in the Blue Grass Stakes, and that was run on Polytrack, so the surface makes the result less reliable. He's unquestionably faced the best competition of any three year old running this year, and he has put them all in their place. There is really only one knock against this horse, and even that is a bit of a stretch. He won both of his big races at Churchill Downs. He has been phenomenal there, but not quite as outstanding outside of Louisville. The impact of that reality is lessened a bit by the fact that none of the other serious contenders in the Preakness have seen Pimlico before either, and none of them will have had a major work on the track before the race. The Preakness is, in every sense, Street Sense's race to lose.
Hard Spun would have had an impressive and dominating Derby win if it weren't for Street Sense. His works before the race showed that he was incredibly fit, and he used that fitness to get the lead and keep it right into the stretch. Trainer Larry Jones is telling everyone who will listen how good the performance was, and how much his horse will benefit from a shorter race - he'll have less time to hold everyone off. Though that's sound in theory, the questions are whether he is still as fit as he was before or if the Derby took something out of him, and if he is going to be able to get free on the lead again. A lesser hose may be tempted to make a run for the front in a bid for immortality. There are reasons to question Hard Spun, but reasons were plentiful before the Derby, too, and he showed that he more than belonged there.
I had a love affair with Curlin going into the Derby, and the love hasn't waned since despite my lighter wallet. The more I watch the replay of the Derby, the more impressed I am by the move that this inexperienced horse made late in the race given the trouble he found himself in early. I firmly believe that Street Sense is the best horse in the class right now, but Curlin has a freakish talent that is so captivating. No other horse comes close to him in pure power and potential. If he has intelligence even remotely approaching his physical tools then he could learn from the Derby experience and come back with a sound performance in Baltimore. The distance clearly won't be a problem, and he will have the room to move that he lacked early on in Louisville. I'll be cheering for Street Sense in hopes of a Triple Crown, but a huge performance by Curlin wouldn't entirely break my heart.
Though some of the circumstances are very different, the way the 2007 Preakness is setting up is reminiscent of the 1997 version. That epic race, part of what is definitely my favorite Triple Crown season, saw a rematch of the top three finishers from the Derby - Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit and Free House. In both cases, the returning threesome included the two favorites from the Derby and a well regarded but somewhat undervalued 10/1 shot. The biggest difference is that in 1997 Silver Charm and Free House already had a well established rivalry - Silver Charm had finished second to Free House in both the San Felipe Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. In 1997 the Preakness was truly a battle, with Silver Charm narrowly beating Free House, and Captain Bodgit following close behind. Free House had been third by a fair distance in the Derby, but bounced back nicely, just as Curlin's connections will be hoping for here. If this year's Preakness is anything like it was 10 years ago then we are in for a real treat.
There's an interesting stat that has been popping up all over the place recently that might give us a possible hint into the outcome of this three-horse race. Since 1989, horses that have been among the first eight in the early stages of the race and ended up winning the Derby have gone on to win seven Preaknesses in 11 tries (and one of the failed attempts was Barbaro). Over the same time period, horses that have won from further back are 0-7 in the Preakness. That doesn't bode well for Street Sense, who exploded from 19th place. Of course, it would only take one win to reverse that trend. No one said that handicapping this Preakness was going to be easy.