05/07/2007 12:00AM

Champs fare better chasing Crown

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NEW YORK - Street Sense's outstanding performance winning the 133rd Kentucky Derby was an extremely satisfying one, and not just for those of us who managed to pick their first Derby winner since Strike the Gold in 1991.

It was the first Derby triumph by a champion 2-year-old since Spectacular Bid's 28 years ago, and the first by a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner in the 23-year history of that race, which restored a pleasing sense of order to the game in an era when so few horses excel for more than a fraction of a single season. So did the fact that Street Sense and the admirably game runner-up Hard Spun were among the few horses who had old-school fast final workouts over the Derby track, when so many others were handled like hothouse flowers. It's also pretty easy to root for trainer Carl Nafzger and jockey Calvin Borel, who rank high on anyone's list of racetrack good guys.

While Street Sense has yet to deliver as powerful a performance outside of Churchill Downs as his Juvenile and Derby victories, it is at least worth noting that returning 2-year-old champions have a far better record bidding for the Triple Crown than later bloomers. Three of the last five juvenile champions who won the Derby were the eventual Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Of the 10 Derby-Preakness winners since then who have failed in the Belmont, the last nine were not champions at 2.

The betting public got it right by a whisker, dispatching Street Sense at 4.90-1 over Curlin at 5.00-1. An $11.80 win mutuel on a favorite was the highest in Derby history and as high a price on a post-time favorite as you will find in 10,000 American races. This is largely a function of having 20 separate betting interests instead of the usual limit of 14, but also reflects that Derby Day bettors, bless them, would not let a donkey go off at more than 60-1. No one in the Derby field was higher than 58-1, and one race earlier in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Shake the Bank - a horse on whom parimutuel wagers should not even be permitted since his sole function is to set the pace for stablemate Better Talk Now and get out of the way - went off at only 41-1.

TV coverage more hits than misses

Encouraging people to bet randomly on names and numbers was a constant and unfortunate theme of NBC's erratic but generally sound national broadcast of the race. Coverage was expanded from 90 minutes to two hours this year but it proved to be a bit of a bait-and-switch, since the additional first half-hour was a "Red Carpet Special" during which sportscasters uncomfortably interviewed D-list celebrities in the style of "Access Hollywood" or "Entertainment Tonight." A clearer distinction between this drivel and the actual NBC Sports broadcast would have been welcome, but the overnight Nielsen ratings suggest that the infotainment segment did lure in some new viewers.

Unfortunately, there was a rather steep dropoff of stars once you got past Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Jordan, with the next-biggest names in attendance mentioned at the top of the broadcast being reality-show staples Gene Simmons and Jenny McCarthy. At least neither of them said anything quite as silly as "poker celebrity" Phil "The Unabomber" Laak, who advised, "I'm going with Tioga because I like the name," apparently confusing Tiago with the racino on the New York-Pennsylvania border.

It was a little disappointing to see Bob Neumeier, a serious handicapper with a good opinion and a shoebox full of pick-six W2-G's to prove it, repeatedly exhorting people to bet on names and hunches. Bob Costas was equally unhelpful suggesting a Storm in May-Stormello exacta box because it had rained on Friday, but Costas conducted excellent interviews with Nafzger and with Mike Smith, who may have a future in broadcasting whenever he hangs up his boots.

The best remarks on the broadcast, however, came from Tom Hammond, who stayed true to his racing roots amid network television's increasingly invisible lines between sports coverage and product placement. After the show's fluffy opening, Hammond noted that "the real royalty, the real celebrities today, reside on the backstretch." Hammond also took the unusually gutsy step of criticizing an advertiser when he rightfully joined the chorus of newspaper and backstretch critics denouncing the tone-deaf new "Yumfecta" bonus being offered by the race's presenting sponsor for a lengthy margin of victory:

"One thinks that any self-respecting trainer or jockey would not push their horse in order to receive that bonus, especially with the Preakness and Belmont down the road," Hammond said. "So that has gotten a lot of attention in the media, and it seems like the wrong emphasis for a bonus to be paid out."