04/13/2007 12:00AM

Can't judge Street Sense by numbers


PHOENIX - The tendency every year is to say this is the most contentious Kentucky Derby or the most difficult to handicap. Well, this year it may actually be true.

I can't remember a Derby with so many question marks up and down the ranks. And for several Derby horses these questions aren't related to the usual subjects - talent or stamina. Instead they are about the path these horses have taken to get to the Derby, and how their connections hope the strategy will come together on May 5.

Many of this year's top contenders are bucking trends. Street Sense is trying to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to win the roses, and will try to do it with just two starts this year. Since Jet Pilot in 1947 only Sunny's Halo (1983) has won the Derby off just two races at 3. Great Hunter and Circular Quay are trying the same thing.

Then there's the layoff angle. Barbaro did something different last year, winning the Derby off five weeks' rest, but Circular Quay and Hard Spun could be going into the Derby off much longer layoffs. Curlin is trying to do it with the fewest number of starts (three).

The way those three horses are coming into the Derby bothers me. First off, Circular Quay's eight-week layoff wasn't planned. Hard Spun, meanwhile, looked good winning the Grade 2 Lane's End on March 24, so why the extended vacation? He seemed to be back on track after the race. Curlin is obviously quite talented, but can three starts possibly be enough to prepare him for such a grueling test?

Street Sense's situation, while certainly going against the numbers, isn't as distressing.

First, let's dispel the whole Breeders' Cup Juvenile-Kentucky Derby thing. There are two reasons a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner hasn't won the Derby. First, going 1 1/16 miles in fall against a bunch of 2-year-olds, many of who are sprinters, is entirely different than going 10 furlongs against some legitimate distance horses six months later. You're asking a young horse to peak in the fall of his juvenile season and then asking him to peak again just six months later, while playing a different game. It's incredibly difficult, and it will take a special horse to succeed in both.

The other reason it hasn't happened yet is that horses are so much more mature at 3 than at 2. You can equate it to humans going from junior high to high school. Kids who dominated the sports in junior high are often surpassed by slower-to-mature athletes in high school.

I don't think giving a horse only two starts before the Derby necessarily precludes the horse from winning. It's not so much the number of races that's important but the reason behind the horse's schedule. Often a horse has a limited schedule because of a physical problem, and that doesn't seem to be the case with Street Sense.

I don't believe having just two races at 3 going into the Derby prevented Native Dancer (second), Summer Tan (third), Bold Arrangement (second), Best Pal (second), Victory Gallop (second), Peace Rules (third) or Lion Heart (second) from running top races. I believe in each case those horses fired - they simply got beat. It happens. I think having two races instead of three meant nothing in terms of their Derby performances.

Last year Barbaro had three races in 2006 going into the Kentucky Derby, and one of those races was on Jan. 1. Are you telling me that if that race had been 24 hours earlier, on Dec. 31, 2005, he would not have won the Derby?

Maybe Carl Nafzger knows what he's doing with Street Sense. Maybe three prep races are too many for a horse who had a grueling juvenile season topped off by a championship.

Street Sense, regardless of what happened in Saturday's Grade 1 Blue Grass, may come acropper at Churchill Downs May 5. That doesn't mean Nafzger did the wrong thing. It's a fluid game, and it requires flexible thinking. Training horses is not all science; there's a lot of art to it.

Nafzger won the Derby in 1990 with Unbridled, so he knows what it takes to win the race. He also knows that you have to treat each horse as an individual. Statistics and numbers are wonderful, but they don't show you everything. It's still all about the horse.