05/20/2007 11:00PM

Big 3 showdown in Belmont?

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Preakness winner Curlin and assistant trainer Scott Blasi go for walk at Pimlico on Sunday.

The first three finishers in the Kentucky Derby took the first three spots in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, and there is the chance all three could show up in New York on June 9 for the Belmont Stakes, too.

Two of three - Curlin and Hard Spun - are definite for the Belmont, while Street Sense is now possible for the race, their respective trainers said. The Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles, is the longest and last leg of the Triple Crown.

Curlin, who won the Preakness after finishing third in the Derby, and Street Sense, who won the Derby and then was second in the Preakness, both were flown from Baltimore to Louisville, Ky., on Sunday and returned to their barns at Churchill Downs. Hard Spun, who was third in the Preakness after finishing second in the Derby, was sent by van from Pimlico to Delaware Park, where he will be based this summer.

None of the three is expected to get to Belmont Park sooner than a week prior to the race. Their participation will impact the field size for the Belmont, since many trainers of potential Belmont runners are none too eager to face the big three. Their enthusiasm may change if there are defections among those three over the next fortnight.

As of Monday, there were 14 horses under consideration for the Belmont, though many - such as Sightseeing, the winner of the Peter Pan Stakes on Sunday at Belmont - are shaky propositions for the race right now.

Curlin, Hard Spun, and Street Sense have clearly separated themselves from the rest of this 3-year-old crop. The Preakness was the fastest race of the year by a 3-year-old, with Curlin receiving a Beyer Speed Figure of 111. The possibility that two and perhaps all three of these colts will meet again helps hold the interest of the Belmont, which will not have a Triple Crown on the line for the third straight year.

The one-two-three finishes by the same horses in the Derby and Preakness had not happened since Silver Charm, Free House, and Captain Bodgit in 1997, and those three were the first to do it since Affirmed, Alydar, and Believe It in 1978.

There never has been an instance of the same horses running one-two-three in the Derby and Preakness and then meeting again in the Belmont.

"I think Curlin, Street Sense, and Hard Spun are a step above this class," Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, said Monday. "Curlin, give him his due. He ran third in the Derby with just three previous starts. Then he comes back and runs an even better race."

Curlin was an unstarted maiden less than four months ago. Now, he has won four times in five starts, with victories in the Preakness, Arkansas Derby, and Rebel Stakes.

"He's an incredible horse," his trainer, Steve Asmussen, said Monday from his barn at Churchill Downs. "He was a little tired yesterday, but he looked great today. He's going to go back to the track to train on Wednesday, and I'd be very surprised if he wasn't the same Curlin he's always been. He's spoiled us."

The Belmont is definitely next, Asmussen said.

"This is the kind of horse who is meant for that caliber of race," Asmussen said. "We're not going to just stand around and admire him. We're going to race him."

Curlin gave Asmussen his first victory in a Triple Crown race, and it came less than a week after the death of Asmussen's paternal grandmother, who lived next door to Asmussen's parents in Laredo, Texas. His parents, Keith and Marilyn, were at the Preakness.

"After we loaded Curlin on the van Sunday morning, I went and had coffee with my dad," Asmussen said. "You can't imagine what a great view it was from across that table."

Street Sense, who lost by a head to Curlin, was initially ruled out of the Belmont right after the Preakness by Nafzger. But by Monday, he left the door open a crack.

"Right now, I'd say I don't think we're going to run in the Belmont, but there's a couple of factors that have come up, so we're going to put that decision off for a week," Nafzger said.

Nafzger said he had spoken to owner Jim Tafel on Sunday, and would do so again at mid-week.

"What we have to decide is what we want to do with him the rest of the year, because what we do regarding the Belmont will determine what we do the rest of the year," Nafzger said. "The main factor is, how did he bounce out of the Preakness? That will take a week."

Nafzger and his wife, Wanda, drove to Baltimore from Louisville. En route home, they stopped in West Virginia on Sunday for a two-day vacation at a resort before returning to Churchill Downs, where trainer Ian Wilkes, his former assistant, was monitoring Street Sense.

"Ian said he came back awful good," Nafzger said.

As for the Preakness, Nafzger said he was disappointed that Street Sense seemed to "lose his intensity" when he hit the front under jockey Calvin Borel.

"That's something we've got to look at, how to alleviate it," Nafzger said. "We've got to push on the button a little later."

Hard Spun also came out of the race well, trainer Larry Jones said.

"From the looks of the horse, we can't rule out the Belmont," Jones said. "One of the reasons he had six weeks off going into the Derby was wanting to run him in these three races. Surely there would be whole lot different pace scenario in the Belmont."

Hard Spun set the pace in the Derby, and moved into the teeth of a hot pace nearing the far turn in the Preakness. Because it is such a long race, the Belmont usually unfolds at a saner pace.

Jones said Hard Spun would go to New York about a week before the Belmont and have his final work for the race at Belmont Park.

Sightseeing, owned by Phipps Stable, got a 97 Beyer Figure in the Peter Pan. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, said, "I'm on the fence, probably leaning against, but I'll wait and see how he does, and I'll talk to the Phippses more."

Chelokee, who scored a popular victory in the Barbaro Stakes on the Preakness undercard, got a Beyer Figure of 95. His trainer, Michael Matz, and Don Little, the head of the Centennial Farm partnership which owns Chelokee, said they would wait before making a decision on the Belmont, but both seemed inclined to look elsewhere.

Those firmly considering the Belmont include Imawildandcrazyguy, who was fourth in the Derby; Tiago, who was seventh in the Derby; and Slew's Tizzy, who won the Lexington Stakes and Lone Star Derby in his last two starts.

The lightly raced French invader Cristobal is also under consideration for the Belmont, according to the New York Racing Association.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who became 0 for 28 in Triple Crown races after sending out Circular Quay (fifth) and King of the Roxy (sixth) in the Preakness, said Circular Quay and the filly Rags to Riches, the Kentucky Oaks winner, are being considered for the Belmont.

Rags to Riches worked a half-mile in 48.24 seconds on Monday at Belmont Park. Pletcher said her participation in the Belmont depends on the Triple Crown's big three.

"If all three of them run, I would say it's doubtful that we would," Pletcher said. "If two of the three run then we have a decision to make. If only one runs then maybe we would take a shot. Those three have shown in the first two legs that they're very high-quality horses, and it might be a bit much to take on all three of them."

Other possibilities include Great Hunter, who was 13th in the Derby; Nobiz Like Shobiz, 10th in the Derby; and Prom Shoes, who was second in the Peter Pan.

"It's not out of the question, but most likely not," said Jinks Fires, the trainer of Prom Shoes.

- additional reporting by David Grening