Steve Haskin's Preakness Wrapup: Final Thoughts

Steve Haskin's Preakness Wrapup: Final Thoughts
Photo: Dave Harmon
Why was Calvin Borel looking behind him?
Five days after the Preakness (gr. I) and people are still talking about the race, asking the same questions. How did Street Sense lose? How remarkable was Curlin’s performance? Did Mario Pino make a blunder or did he make the right move that just didn’t turn out right? Why was Calvin Borel looking behind him in deep stretch?

You can come up with a variety of answers to these questions, but the bottom line is, this was one of the most exciting and interesting runnings of the Preakness ever, and, as so often happens, the condemnation of the 3-year-old crop by many of the experts proved premature.

It must be stated right off the bat that Street Sense is an enigma, in that he is unlike any horse seen in quite a while. The son of Street Cry is remarkably consistent in the way he mows down horses in spectacular fashion on the far turn. And he rides the rail like the Orient Express.

It’s what happens after he turns into the stretch that makes him so perplexing. Is he going to lose focus and relax once he gets in front or is he going to blow his field away? Apparently, not even his jockey and trainer know the answer. Here is a horse who wins the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) – both at Churchill Downs -- drawing away, yet blows the Preakness, Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).

Can anyone recall a horse with his running style – coming from far back with a devastating run – losing three grade I stakes by getting caught each time? You can understand how a horse like this can lose by failing to catch a horse in front of him, for whatever reason, but to get caught three times after making such a dramatic winning move is unusual to say the least.

There is no doubt that he is an immensely talented horse, one of the most exciting we’ve seen in years. But from now on, you can no longer feel confident in victory, regardless of how big a run he puts in, until you know whether he’s in his pouring-it-on mode or his come-and-get-me mode.

So, did he blow the Preakness, as many believe? The feeling here is he didn’t. He came home his final three-sixteenths in :18 4/5, which wins just about any Preakness; he opened up four lengths on Hard Spun, beating him twice as far as he did in the Derby; and he equaled the three fastest Preaknesses ever run. When you accomplish all that and still lose, then you have to look at the horse that beat you.

And when you look at Curlin, you’re looking at an extraordinary horse, who has performed more amazing feats in his first three and a half months of racing than any horse in memory. The son of Smart Strike was supposed to have hit the proverbial brick wall already, but if one exists, he’s obviously broken right through it and is actually getting stronger and faster, if that is possible.

Coming off three strolls in the park in his first three races and never having been looked in the eye, he was thrown into the mass frenzy that is the Kentucky Derby, and with no 2-year-old foundation at all. That’s like an Iowa farm boy coming to New York City, being thrown into a crowded subway train at rush hour and being told to make his way from one end of the train to the other in two minutes.

Curlin was all but swallowed up by the field after getting pinched back early, and was moving with Street Sense when the only hole available closed right in his face, not only making him alter course and look for another way through, but opening the rail up for Street Sense. For him to pass three horses in the final eighth and outfinish two strong closers – Imawildandcrazyguy and Circular Quay -- to finish third was extremely impressive, and actually brought him more respect than he had before the race. He proved to many, even in defeat, that he was everything they said he was. It also provided him with the fortitude and toughness he would need two weeks later.

So, what does he do in the Preakness? He stumbles at the start, nearly going to his knees and makes a dramatic, sweeping move on the far turn to reach contention. With his enormous strides, he  fails to negotiate the stretch turn, fanning himself five wide and having Street Sense blow right by him on his inside. Stuck on his left lead, he appears to be on his way to another third-place finish at best. But, then jockey Robby Albarado yanks him to the inside in one final attempt to get him to change leads. He responds, switching over to his right lead, and, amazingly, finds another gear. He bears down on Street Sense, who already has his connections celebrating victory, and runs him down at the wire.

Despite all this, he manages to equal the Preakness record of 1:53 2/5, come home his final three-sixteenths in about :18 2/5, which is as fast a closing time as you’ll ever see, and earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 111 and a Ragozin Sheets number of “negative 1/4,” both exceptional figures.

Curlin has been called a freak by more than one horseman, and that was before the Derby. You’ll find that word being used with a lot more regularity now following his Preakness performance.

When the great Preaknesses of all time are discussed, you can bet this year’s renewal will be mentioned right up near the top of the list.

You also have to acknowledge yet another top-class performance by third-place finisher Hard Spun, who proves race after race that he is one fast, tough colt, who just loves to go out there and run. He could have easily been right there in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but things didn’t quite go his way. Only a blessed trip by Street Sense prevented him from winning the Derby, as he ran his butt off every step of the way through testing fractions, finishing almost six lengths ahead of Curlin.

Trainer Larry Jones tried different tactics in the Preakness, and the son of Danzig rated beautifully in behind the battling leaders Xchanger and Flying First Class, who cut out a blistering pace. Sitting some four lengths back and saving ground, Hard Spun looked to be in the garden spot. But when C P West came rolling up on his outside, jockey Mario Pino saw the potential for disaster unfolding. If he let C P West pull up on even terms, and one or both of the leaders suddenly stopped in front of him, he’d find himself hopelessly trapped.

In a split-second decision, he steered Hard Spun to the outside before C P West had a chance to pin him in, hoping the colt would continue to relax and bide his time. Now, out in the clear, with nothing but daylight directly in front of him and two horses down on the rail, Hard Spun’s competitive juices started flowing – no, make that gushing – and he dragged Pino to the lead with a quick burst through a rapid :23 1/5 quarter. That burst was supposed to have come at the three-eighths pole, not down the backstretch.

Pino tried to reel him back in once he cleared the two leaders, and Hard Spun did come back to him. But then C P West came charging at him midway around the turn and that got the colt’s blood up again. As he did in the Derby, he opened up a two-length lead, and still seemed to be on cruise control. But that initial quick move and the brutal pace eventually took its toll.

The pace cooked Xchanger and Flying First Class, who retreated rapidly to finish last and next-to-last, beaten 26 and 30 lengths, respectively. Hard Spun, however, kept on giving his all. Although he couldn’t match the powerful moves of Curlin and Street Sense, he did hang on gamely for third, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of C P West, who will be heard from this summer.

So, there you have it, three magnificent performances by three talented colts, and a finish that will be talked about for many years. And if Curlin, with those long, sweeping strides of his, somehow manages to take yet another step forward in the Belmont Stakes, we could witness the birth of a superstar. But before we get too far ahead ourselves, Street Sense and Hard Spun are star material in their own right, and if all three make it to Belmont (still awaiting word on Street Sense), we could have another race for the ages. It would be a shame if Curlin and Street Sense didn’t get a chance to settle the score in the last remaining classic, but that is out of our control.

A few other thoughts on the Preakness:

Mention has been made about Calvin Borel looking back over his right shoulder (not a peek, a look) as Curlin moved up on his flank. It is doubtful that cost Street Sense the race, as it happened quickly and the colt never broke his rhythm. But there is still the question of why he did it. At that stage of the race, with a horse (regardless of who it is) charging up behind you and gaining ground with every stride, why look back? To see who it is? Who cares at that point? The great trainers will tell you, you bear down, focus on the wire, and ride your tail off. This is not a big deal, but one still can’t help but wonder why Borel decided to look back at such a crucial point in the race, when it was obvious every inch was going to be important.

With that said, up until that point, Borel rode another flawless race on Street Sense, saving as much ground as possible and then once again finding a perfect seam after easing off the rail. His timing also was perfect, as he took the lead at the right moment. But for whatever reason, everything came apart in the final sixteenth. Whether it was Street Sense's doing, Borel's doing, or more likely Curlin's doing, it just wasn't meant to be, as it was in the Derby.

C P West became a man in the Preakness. Nick Zito had to nurture him along slowly following an injury last fall, and he’s made giant strides with every race. His move on the far turn in the Preakness was impressive, and for a moment it looked as if he would be right there. But he probably was one race away from being at his best, and he couldn’t quite sustain the move through such a strong final three-sixteenths. Now, with three races under him, and showing he can compete with the best, expect him to become a force in the 3-year-old division, especially come Travers time.

As for Todd Pletcher’s two horses, Circular Quay ran OK, but with his style, he’s not going to beat Street Sense and Curlin when they get first run on him. Pletcher just has to find out his best distance and put him in spots where the race and the competition set up better for him. King of the Roxy bled in the race, so we can’t get a gauge on where he fits with these horses. He has proven himself in top-class races and certainly deserves another chance in grade I company, but probably at shorter distances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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