05/08/2006 12:00AM

Barbaro made it look like a one-horse Derby

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LOUISVILLE, KY. - If you're going to be wrong, you might as well be very wrong.

I was as wrong as can be about Barbaro in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. I thought the fact that Barbaro was attempting to become the first horse in 50 years to win the Derby off a layoff of five weeks or more, and that he was trying to win the Derby having raced only once in the last 13 weeks, would be too big of an obstacle in the most demanding race in America. Instead, Barbaro was absolutely sensational.

In fact, the term sensational might not even do justice to Barbaro's Kentucky Derby.

Barbaro made a shambles of a field that was one of the most competitive and deepest in recent Derby history. This perception was supported by the way the betting went on the top contenders. The favorite wasn't established until late in the wagering period. Barbaro was narrowly favored during most of the betting, but in the end that role went to Sweetnorthernsaint, who closed at a tepid 5.50-1, 60 cents on the dollar less than Barbaro. And where you really get a sense of how closely matched this Derby appeared on paper is the fact that the next seven choices in the betting were all under 15-1, which is really quite amazing when you consider that there were 20 individual betting interests.

But as tight as this race looked in the past performances it was just as lopsided on the track. With the way he was traveling late on the backstretch, and considering who was in front of him, and who couldn't keep up with him from behind, Barbaro appeared to be a winner almost a half-mile from the finish. Barbaro didn't merely win, however. He buried his field, running away to a 6 1/2-length score, the largest win margin in 60 years, under only a hand ride. And perhaps even more impressive, Barbaro completed his final quarter of a mile in an excellent 24.34 seconds to stop the clock at 2:01.36, which was good for a strong Beyer Speed Figure of 111.

These weren't the only things that were so impressive about Barbaro. Although the pace was not as scorching as projected - the first quarter of 22.63 was quick, but the half-mile and six-furlong fractions of 46.07 and 1:10.88 were quite reasonable over a Churchill Downs main track that was not the usual Derby Day paved highway - Barbaro was the only true early-pace presence to be a meaningful factor in the finish. Keyed Entry, who set the pace, finished last. Sinister Minister, who prompted the pace, finished 16th. Sharp Humor, who failed to show all the speed expected of him, finished 19th after a brief display of early foot. And Showing Up, who like Barbaro is owned by the Lael Stables of Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and who raced in company with Barbaro early, faded to sixth. In other words, Barbaro not only ran hard late, but he also did some fairly serious running early to establish his excellent early striking position. That proved to be a combination that no one could come close to beating.

And speaking of no one, no other Derby starters had even remotely enough trouble to suggest that they could have gotten within hailing distance with a clean trip. Oh, there was some bumping coming out of the gate, but it didn't matter one bit. There may have been 20 starters, but this was a one-horse race. And that isn't meant to denigrate some of the horses Barbaro clobbered in the Derby, because some of them are still nice horses who will go on to win important stakes.

Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, deserves tons of credit for having his horse ready off the kind of schedule that has not worked in the Derby in half a century. And now, Matz faces a new and distinctly different challenge. The shortest amount of time Barbaro has ever had between starts in his six-race career came between his first and second starts this year, and spans one day less than five weeks. But if Barbaro is to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive and his undefeated record intact, he must come back with another strong performance in just two weeks' time at Pimlico. Expect that to be a prime storyline as the Preakness approaches, and count on whatever doubt might exist about his ability to run well off his shortest rest so far as the reason why anyone who finished behind him in the Derby might be brave enough to try him again at Pimlico.

I suppose there might be a tiny chance that there is some substance to that notion, but to put any great stock in it is likely a stretch. Barbaro was brought to the Derby fresh because that is what his trainer believes is best, and also so that he would be ready to handle the unique rigors of the Triple Crown - three races in five weeks. Now that Barbaro has the first one in the bag, and with the compelling way he tucked it away, it is easy to see why so many people now think Barbaro is perfectly positioned for a very serious run at a Triple Crown sweep.