10/24/2007 12:00AM

Crunch time for Hard Spun

EmailOCEANPORT, N.J. - Of this year's celebrated crop of 3-year-olds, there might not be a more versatile runner than Hard Spun. He has won stakes on conventional dirt surfaces and synthetic surfaces. He has won stakes races going short and going long. He has won on a fast track and on a sloppy track.

What he hasn't done, it seems, is win when everybody's watching, and that has made Hard Spun perhaps the most underappreciated, overlooked runner in Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park.

Hard Spun was second in the Kentucky Derby to Street Sense. He was third in the Preakness Stakes, which was won by Curlin. And he was fourth in the Belmont Stakes. He and Curlin were the only horses to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown. And while Curlin and Street Sense are sure to be shorter prices in the Classic than Hard Spun, Hard Spun has outfinished Curlin in two of their four meetings, and a victory on Saturday would even the score between him and Street Sense.

"Who will have beaten us more if - if - we win this thing?" Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun, asked rhetorically. "We will have beaten every horse at least as much as they've beaten us. Now, we have to do it. But we've been through every dance. He hasn't been a one- or two-race wonder."

Hard Spun won the first four starts of his career against soft competition, but a loss in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in February raised questions as to his quality. Jones insisted that Hard Spun simply did not care for Oaklawn's surface. Hard Spun then rebounded with a victory in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park, and then ran one of the best races of his career when second to Street Sense, while 5 3/4 lengths in front of third-place Curlin, in the Derby.

"I don't understand why people question whether he can run a mile and a quarter," Jones said. "If Street Sense doesn't fire in the Derby, we win by five."

After finishing behind Curlin in the Preakness and Belmont, Hard Spun edged Curlin here in the Haskell Invitational, when both were dusted by Any Given Saturday.

"That's the one race in this horse's career where he wasn't focused going in," Jones said. "Maybe he was tired coming out of the Triple Crown. But coming out of the Haskell, he's been a bear."

Hard Spun shortened up from the Haskell's 1o1/8 miles to seven furlongs in the King's Bishop at Saratoga, and turned in a superior effort to win while racing inside after setting wickedly fast fractions. He then stretched back out to 1 1/8 miles for the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway, and beat Street Sense after setting a soft pace.

"This horse can do whatever," Jones said. "If you need him to go 44, he'll give you 44," Jones said. "At Turfway, he went 48. As he's gotten older, he's gotten better. He wanted to be a little rank early in his career."

Credit for that maturity has to go to Jones, who doubles as both trainer and exercise rider for Hard Spun. On Wednesday morning, in a light drizzle, they galloped about 1 1/2 miles around Monmouth's track, with Hard Spun looking far more developed physically than he did this spring.

Hard Spun has one last chance to make an impression. The Classic will be his final career start. Everyone will be watching, because with Any Given Saturday, Curlin, Street Sense, and the older horse Lawyer Ron in the lineup, Horse of the Year is on the line.

"The 3-year-olds have stacked up very well against the older horses this year," Jones said. "This is a very good group of 3-year-olds. Hopefully, he can prove that he's the best."