05/11/2006 12:00AM

Barbaro's Triple Crown still iffy


ELMONT, N.Y. - Horses are not always as good as they look in victory or as bad as they look in defeat. A perfect set of circumstances can make a horse look like a world-beater. Does anyone think Pleasant Home was really tons the best in last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff?

For every such winner there are many more losers that fail to put forth an expected effort because of poor racing luck, the wrong setup, an underlying physical issue, or an equipment problem such as a thrown shoe. Who could have known by watching the 1973 Wood Memorial that an abscessed tooth was at the root of Secretariat's shocking defeat?

How many times since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown has anticipation turned to disappointment? Since then 10 horses have arrived at Belmont with a chance to sweep the series, six of them in the past nine years. How good did Spectacular Bid look? Alysheba? Smarty Jones? Mortal locks all, and we haven't even started with the other 3-year-olds who won two of three legs. How much the best was Afleet Alex last spring?

And yet, in the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby the verdict this past week has been virtually unanimous. Barbaro is a virtual cinch to win the Triple Crown.

As a fan I will be rooting for Barbaro to win the Preakness and come to New York with his chance at immortality intact, because I like his background, and it would be cool to see history made.

But as handicappers, before we rush to erect a granite statue, Barbaro's avalanche of glowing Derby reviews needs to be tempered with at least some realistic assessment of the race, and the tough stretch of road that still lies ahead.

Consider the following:

* Barbaro had 46 days from his debut to the Laurel Futurity, 43 days to the Tropical Park Derby, 34 days to the Holy Bull, 56 days to the Florida Derby, and 35 days to the Kentucky Derby. How he reacts coming back on two weeks' rest is a significant X factor, and the degree of difficulty may be compounded because he just ran a new top figure.

* Getting back to the first point, five horses in the Derby field were under 10-1, and Barbaro was the only one who ran his race. He got a dream trip, while the first and third choices, Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek, had the toughest trips. Though they were well beaten, each had previously run a figure within a couple lengths of the winner, and their prior consistency makes them viable candidates to rebound next week.

* Let's reiterate that Barbaro could not have had a better Derby trip. He raced alongside his entrymate, the inexperienced Showing Up, while in the clear and stalking Keyed Entry, who could not stay 1 1/8 miles in the Wood, and Sinister Minister, a hot-blooded speedball who was done as soon as Keyed Entry beat him to the front.

* Barbaro's move to command through the second half-mile was especially deceiving, not only because the two horses in front of him slammed on the brakes, but also because the time for that segment of the race was 50.95 seconds, making it the Derby's slowest second half since fractions were first recorded in hundredths of seconds back in 1991. For perspective, the second half-mile was run in under 50 seconds nine times in the previous 15 Derbies.

* To his credit, Barbaro sealed the deal thereafter and buried the field with a last quarter of 24.34, the fastest since Secretariat. But before we mention those two in the same breath, know that Big Red's track-record run, a record that still stands, concluded with a last quarter in 23.20 - after he gained nine lengths into a second half-mile of 48.80 seconds!

Is Barbaro really as good as he looked in the Derby? That may turn out to be so, but the question was not answered unequivocally last Saturday, far from it. So far everything has gone according to plan, but let's see how Barbaro responds when he is asked to overcome adversity, or faces a truly authentic challenge, or preferably both.