Steve Haskin's Preakness Report - Curlin's Derby Better Than it Looks

Steve Haskin's Preakness Report - Curlin's Derby Better Than it Looks
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Curlin won his first three starts before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby.
Derby Works Photos

Almost a week has gone by since the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and all the analyses have been written. While it’s time to look ahead to the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), there still are some Derby points that are worth discussing.

None of those points concern Street Sense, as everything there is to say about the colt has already been said. And as far as his dream trip and his superiority at Churchill Downs, that now has more bearing on the Preakness, especially if you’re looking for a reason to search elsewhere in the second leg of the Triple Crown. You know many will question whether the son of Street Cry will be as effective at Pimlico, at a shorter distance, and with a target on his back, which actually should have been there for the Derby. If it was, it certainly was ignored.

But the bottom line is, the best horse won the Derby, and despite all the ifs and buts, Street Sense won by daylight, came home his last quarter in :24 1/5, and, basically, did all he was required to do. Yes, had he gotten stopped somewhere along the way, Hard Spun likely would have won. But you can say that about most any winner of any race.

Breaking down the race, the trip that is worth analyzing is Curlin’s. And despite his getting beaten eight lengths, he actually enhanced his reputation in one person’s opinion, and all he lost, other than his unbeaten record, is the intrigue that went with a horse who had won all three of his starts by an average margin of 9 1/2 lengths.

Despite what those close to him believed, Curlin was at a big disadvantage having only three starts and no 2-year-old foundation. Perhaps he was physically fit to win the Derby, but he was too inexperienced to handle the massive traffic jams one normally encounters in the race. Maybe he could have won with Street Sense’s trip, or had he been able to control the pace as Hard Spun did. But those trips are the exception. When a horse is subjected to the kind of trip Curlin had, he would have a much better chance of overcoming it with experience and battle-toughness. Yes, Curlin has shown a maturity far beyond his years, but in the end he still was a green kid thrown into a street fight against kids with more savvy and toughness.

His first obstacle was having to overcome the 2-post, which could turn out to be a good post if you get lucky and get a clean trip down there. Curlin broke well and was in the clear, with no typical bumper car racing going on around him. It looked as if he would have the speed and the position to get up into contention in the first seven or eight. But when Sedgefield, who had broken from the rail, and Storm in May came together directly in front of him, jockey Robby Albarado had to steady ever so slightly, enough for the colt to hesitate and lose several lengths, dropping him well back in the pack.

He remained in traffic for most of the way, while racing in 13th or 14th. Leaving the half-mile pole, he was sandwiched between Zanjero on his inside and Sam P. on his outside. He was able to outrun those two and was beginning to launch his bid just as Street Sense was charging up the rail. This is where his fate was decided.

Curlin and Street Sense were on equal terms, both making up ground. While Street Sense was having a clean, ground-saving trip, Curlin was running up behind a wall of horses. There was one opening available to his inside, between Liquidity, on the rail, and a retreating Teuflesberg. Albarado shot for the hole, making a left-hand turn on Curlin. But no sooner had he done that when David Flores, on Liquidity, came off the rail, obviously afraid that Sedgefield, hugging the rail in front of him, was about to back up in his face.

So, not only did Liquidity close up the hole Curlin was shooting for, he let Street Sense come charging through without the slightest hesitation. Albarado, meanwhile, yanked Curlin’s head to the right and steered him back to the outside to start looking for another way through. By then, Street Sense was gone, while Curlin still was bottled up in the pack. Remember, this is an inexperienced horse, who had never even looked another horse in the eye.

Turning for home, the field finally fanned out, and Curlin came with his run, drifting out, despite right-handed whipping from Albarado. He had shown in the past he’s more comfortable racing on the outside, just as Street Sense, who ducked to the rail after getting the lead, is more comfortable racing on the inside.

Curlin still had run left in him, and he was able to pass Any Given Saturday, Nobiz Like Shobiz, and Sedgefield in the final furlong to get up for third, outfinishing Imawildandcrazyguy and Circular Quay, who were closing from 20th and 18th, respectively.

So, although Curlin’s speed figures in the Derby aren’t going to knock anyone’s socks off due to the fact that he didn’t lose much ground the whole way, the Steve Asmussen-trained colt could be an interesting horse for the Preakness, assuming the race doesn’t prove to be one race too many. The son of Smart Strike  has had an awful lot crammed into him in a short period of time, and without a foundation behind it, it’s only a question of when he’s going to start to regress. It might have happened already, or he could have one more big one left in him. Perhaps we’ll have a better idea by late next week after he works at Churchill and spends his first few days at Pimlico. But in one person’s opinion, Curlin ran an excellent race in the Derby considering the circumstances and proved that he is indeed a special horse.

Other Derby observations

-- Check out these post-race jockey comments: “He had a little trouble getting hold of the track.” – John Velazquez on Circular Quay. “I had a good trip, but my horse didn’t like the track” – Cornelio Velasquez on Nobiz Like Shobiz. “My horse wasn’t handling the track at all” – Corey Nakatani on Great Hunter.

The only three comments about not liking the track were in reference to horses who did not have a work at Churchill Downs. Some horses have been able to pull it off, like Funny Cide and Giacomo, but overall, it has been proven that horses who work well at Churchill usually run well. Since 1997, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Monarchos, Smarty Jones, Barbaro, and Street Sense all had THE best work over the Churchill track before the Derby. In 2001, Congaree was more impressive than his stablemate Point Given working for the Derby and finished well ahead of him, even though Point Given was the solid favorite.

Working at Keeneland is fine in order to keep on schedule and not have to worry about the weather, but it seems pretty clear that having the final work at Churchill is extremely important. Being protective of your horse is all well and good, especially if you’re more interested in just getting to the Derby. But history has shown you have to be aggressive and take a chance if you want to win it. Larry Jones went against the grain and worked Hard Spun a mile over Polytrack to compensate for the colt’s six-week layoff, and although the colt came back one tired puppy, it was that stiff lung-opener that helped him run off from every horse in the field but the winning favorite.

-- Did anyone catch Tiago galloping out after the Derby? Despite getting beat 10 lengths, coming with a very late run, he barreled his way between Street Sense and Hard Spun approaching the clubhouse turn after the race and blew right past them. What does that mean? Most likely absolutely nothing, but it still was as strong a gallop out as you’ll ever see after the Derby, so it’s at least a point of interest.

-- Who looked more authentic in his cowboy hat, Larry Jones, a good old boy from tiny Herndon, Ky. or Bill Kaplan, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, N.Y.?

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