05/20/2007 11:00PM

In '07, the puck stops here

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Look at it this way. At the very least, the nation has been spared the agony of another soul-shattering letdown in the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. For that alone, sports fans owe Curlin and Robby Albarado their undying gratitude.

Still, it was a ferocious fight, with two Thoroughbreds putting on the kind of show that could give the game a good name. Despite running the same outstanding race he turned in at Churchill Downs, Street Sense will not be listed among the 29 young runners to win both the Derby and the Preakness, and then head valiantly into the Belmont in search of the Triple Crown. Instead, for all his quality, Street Sense will be relegated to the list of 39 Derby winners who tried and failed to win the Preakness in the 79 years that the Preakness has followed the Derby.

The fact that Street Sense tried harder than most should not be lost in the shuffle. No Derby winner has lost the Preakness by less since High Quest beat Cavalcade by a nose in 1934. And even that sterling match was ho-hum compared to the Curlin-Street Sense battle, since both Cavalcade and High Quest were owned and trained by the same lucky folks.

Because the finish was so close, the 132nd running of the Preakness Stakes will be dissected to death, parsed like a piece of evidence scooped up and turned over to CSI. It already has been described as the most exciting in the last decade. But no argument here, as long as a line is drawn at the 1997 running, which came down to a four-horse brawl involving Silver Charm, Free House, Captain Bodgit, and Touch Gold. Just as it was on Saturday, the margin between Silver Charm and Free House came down to a head, with the verdict very much in doubt right to the end.

For those of us witnessing the 132nd Preakness electronically, there were the usual pleasures and distractions supplied by the network (in this case NBC) telecast. This is neither the time nor space for a full-blown review, especially since NBC has now folded its Triple Crown tent, handing over a tepid Belmont Stakes to ABC. But there were a few small items worth mentioning.

Racing fans tuning a bit early for the Preakness broadcast who caught the tail end of regulation time in the Buffalo Sabres-Ottawa Senators Stanley Cup playoff game with the scored tied were fully justified in thinking, "Here we go again - bumped by hockey this time."

But at long last, it did not happen. Viewers more intent on one of only three Triple Crown events - rather than one of about 450 Stanley Cup playoff games - finally heard the words they'd been longing to hear, as NBC broadcaster Mike Emrick neared the critical moment from rinkside in Buffalo.

"A reminder with this game 2-2 and heading into overtime," Emrick announced. "After these messages we will bring you live coverage of today's running of the Preakness. For those of you who want to stay with this game, our coverage will continue on Versus. For those of you in the Buffalo area, your NBC station will stay with this game."

Makes you feel kind of sorry for hockey, doesn't it?

Pity the casual fan who listens intently to the prerace analysis and then gets to read between the lines during interviews with such headline trainers as Wayne Lukas, who saddled Flying First Class, and Carl Nafzger, regarding Street Sense. Lukas, though backing down from any thought that his colt would be committed to setting a foolish pace, seemed every bit as confident as Nafzger, who had the heavy favorite.

At the end of the Preakness, there was about 30 lengths separating Street Sense from Flying First Class, which, if nothing else, offers a stark reminder of the difference between winning the Kentucky Derby and winning the Kentucky Derby Trial.

As far as this fan is concerned, there is no better broadcaster than Bob Costas when it comes to both entertaining angles and thoughtful analysis. That is why he deserves the benefit of the doubt after suggesting that, "Maybe sometime during this racing season, Todd Pletcher can ditch the label of greatest trainer never to win a Triple Crown race."

Perhaps Costas was simply setting up a straw argument, which was so eloquently dismissed by Pletcher himself during a one-on-one. At the same time, anyone who has been a racing fan longer than Pletcher has been a trainer - 11 years - was whipping off a list of even greater trainers, either retired, deceased, or still in business, who have yet to be lucky enough to win a Triple Crown event. This reporter closed his notebook after jotting down Allen Jerkens, Bobby Frankel, Ron McAnally, Angel Penna, Willard Proctor, Bill Molter, Eddie Neloy and Angel Penna.

Finally, for those latent hockey fans who were left wondering what happened in Buffalo, the Senators got a goal by Daniel Alfredsson 9:32 into overtime to beat the Sabres and head for the Cup finals for the first time in franchise history. And for you racing fans in Buffalo, it was Curlin by a short head over Street Sense. No overtime required.