06/10/2007 11:00PM

Crown provided classic examples


When future horseplayers look back on the 2007 Triple Crown, they will merely see three different winners of America's most famous and oldest racing series. But the disparate Triple Crown results betray the fact this was one of the most exciting and meaningful in decades.

It wasn't quite Affirmed vs. Alydar in 1978; but the 2007 Triple Crown had terrific story lines and featured two of the most dramatic stretch battles in Triple Crown history - back to back. It also reinforced a series of important handicapping lessons that we should keep in mind the next time around.

Handicapping the Kentucky Derby.

* As demonstrated by Barbaro's five-week layoff last year and Street Sense's two prep races this year, fresh horses deserve extra credit, not demerits. Of course, the horse in question must be proven in high-class company around two turns, and the trainer must be a certifiable expert with distance horses and/or have a winning history targeting specific races.

Carl Nafzger succeeded with Street Sense because he was training a genuine champion with considerable scope. Nafzger, a previous Derby-winning trainer, exuded supreme confidence in his approach right up to the first Saturday in May.

Similarly, Michael Matz, a Derby rookie in 2006, confidently brought Barbaro to the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff because he had already won the Florida Derby off an eight-week layoff.

* Derby-week workouts matter.

When Street Sense worked in progressively faster fractional splits to complete his excellent Derby-week preparation at Churchill Downs, he was following a nearly forgotten script that has been extremely effective through many decades.

To cite just a few examples, Sunny's Halo worked a mile with progressively faster fractions for trainer David Cross six days before his 1983 Derby win; Woody Stephens did virtually the same with Swale the following year.

Charlie Whittingham did it with Ferdinand in 1986; Bob Baffert did with Silver Charm's six-furlong Derby-week work in 1997; and Barbaro's workout during Derby week last year was misreported by Churchill Downs clockers as a four-furlong move, but it was a much longer and included strong finishing splits and a powerful gallop-out.

As for Hard Spun's 57.60-second Derby week workout, which did include a slow last furlong and a slower gallop-out, Kentucky-based trainer Phil Thomas tried to warn me before the Derby that the work would be a crucial key to Hard Spun's fine performance.

Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, "hasn't done much with him from the Lane's End to Derby week," Thomas pointed out. "He needed to show his speed in that work. Even though he did slow up at the end, he left the track without taking a deep breath. I think it set him up for a top effort."

Handicapping the Preakness.

* As has been the case for many decades, horses who run strong races in the Derby tend to dominate the Preakness two weeks later.

This trend stretches back many decades, but in recent years, it has become a powerful way to isolate the most promising Preakness contenders.

Since 1997 for instance, there have been six winners of both the Kentucky Derby in the Preakness. Excluding that group, there have been two other third-place finishers in the Derby who won the Preakness - Curlin this year and Afleet Alex in 2005. Also, there were nine other horses that finished in the money in the Derby and came back to finish in the money in the Preakness. That translates to 17 different horses that finished first, second, or third in the Derby and 1, 2, or 3 in the Preakness. The potency of this factor is even stronger when we consider that five horses who were second in the Derby never made it to Baltimore.

* It is proven fact that only high-class newcomers deserve a serious look in the Preakness.

A few recent examples: Red Bullet had previously finished a solid second to Fusaichi Pegasus in the 2000 Wood Memorial before turning the tables in the Preakness. Scrappy T won the 2005 Withers Stakes with a Beyer Speed Figure of 102 before his second-place finish to Afleet Alex in the Preakness. Last year, Bernardini won the Withers with a 104 Beyer Figure to loom as the most serious danger to the ill-fated Barbaro.

There were no such high-class newcomers in this year's Preakness field, which suggested that all of them deserved to be extreme longshots.

Handicapping the Belmont stakes.

* To win the 12-furlong Belmont, it is almost mandatory that a horse be capable of reaching the lead or be within two lengths of the lead at the 1 1/4-mile marker.

Since 1926, when the Belmont became a 1o1/2-mile race, there have been 65 winners who fit the profile and 17 who did not, including 10 who were just three lengths off the pace with a quarter-mile left to run.

Ten of the 11 Belmont winners since 1997 fit this profile. This list includes Rags to Riches, who had proven tactical speed and reached the final quarter in the Belmont with a slight lead over Curlin despite stumbling leaving the starting gate.

* Before 2000, horses who competed in the Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness (and/or another suitable prep race such as the old Jersey Derby or the Peter Pan), were automatic throwouts. In keeping with the contemporary tendency to race horses so sparingly, this trend has reversed in recent years.

In 2000, Commendable was 17th in the Derby, but won the Belmont at 18-1 in his next start five weeks later. In 2003, Empire Maker was second in the Derby and won the Belmont in his next start over Ten Most Wanted, who was ninth in the Derby and also came directly to the Belmont stakes.

In 2005, Andromeda's Hero was eighth in the Derby and followed this script to finish second in the Belmont. Last year, Jazil and Bluegrass Cat finished 1-2 in the Belmont after running fourth and second in the Kentucky Derby. This year, Rags to Riches did not run in the Kentucky Derby, but she did win the Kentucky Oaks on May 4 and showed her abundant class by next winning the Belmont stakes in her historic duel with the Preakness winner, Curlin.

We can now take the red pencil and cancel one additional persistent handicapping trend that has led to a lot of betting money going down the drain.

* Trainer Todd Pletcher definitely knows how to win a Triple Crown race, maybe a bunch of Triple Crown races.

Pletcher's mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, broke a 12-race Kentucky Derby losing streak with a large-bodied filly named Winning Colors in 1988 and then went on a Triple Crown rampage in the 1990s.

The difference in Lukas's approach to preparing for the Derby also may prove to be a road map for Pletcher.

Lukas broke through when he focused on getting a horse specifically ready for the Derby, rather than winning a slew of Derby prep races. After Rags to Riches won the Kentucky Oaks with a solid Beyer Figure of 104, Pletcher pointed her for a possible start in the race she was bred best to win.

Rags to Riches was sired by the 1992 Belmont winner, A P Indy, and foaled by Better Than Honour, the dam of last year's Belmont winner, Jazil.

That said, the three different winners in this year's Triple Crown races have put the 3-year-old championship in play for the rest of the year. But before we conclude that this trio and the consistent Hard Spun will have the summer stage to themselves, lightly raced stakes winners Sightseeing and Chelokee are waiting in the wings to take a crack at them, perhaps in the Travers at Saratoga, on Aug 25.