05/18/2007 11:00PM

Curlin catches Street Sense in last jump

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos

BALTIMORE - Inexperience may have betrayed Curlin when he suffered the first loss of his career with a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but the experience gleaned from that race paid off two weeks later when he rallied boldly in the stretch to catch Derby winner Street Sense and capture the 132nd Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico.

Curlin ($8.80), the second choice, stumbled slightly at the start, settled near the back of the pack, and was passed by Street Sense as the field came around the far turn and into the stretch. But he resolutely kept to his task and wore down Street Sense in the final yards to win by a head.

Hard Spun, the Derby runner-up, was another four lengths back in third. C P West was fourth and was followed, in order, by Circular Quay, King of the Roxy, Mint Slewlep, Xchanger, and Flying First Class.

Curlin completed 1 3/16 miles, the shortest of the Triple Crown races, in 1:53.46 on a track rated fast despite rain showers that fell sporadically, beginning a little more than an hour before the start of the race. His time is the equivalent of the Preakness record, 1:53 2/5, shared by Tank's Prospect (1985) and Louis Quatorze (1996), when the race was timed in fifths of a second instead of hundredths.

Curlin earned $600,000 from a total purse of $1 million.

Robby Albarado, who rode Curlin, bounced back to compete after being thrown from Einstein during an accident in the Dixie Handicap earlier on the card. He scored his first victory in a Triple Crown race, as did Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen.

Preakness Day began with gorgeous weather - just a few random clouds, blue skies, and temperatures in the mid-60s. As the day progressed, however, storm clouds began to accumulate near the track, and it began to rain about 80 minutes before post time for the Preakness.

The rain came down harder, and the temperature started to fall, just as the nine horses were being led over to be saddled. Usually at the Preakness, most horses are saddled in the infield, but this day, seven of the nine were taken to the inside paddock by their trainers. Only Flying First Class and C P West remained in the infield to be saddled before being joined later by the others.

But when the horses came on the track to the strains of "Maryland, My Maryland," the sun began to peek through the clouds.

Throughout the day, the main track tended to favor horses who were on or near the lead. It was extremely difficult to make up appreciable ground. But the rain may have tightened up the track, which yielded swift fractions in the Preakness.

Street Sense won the Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs as the tepid 9-2 favorite against 19 rivals, but was sent off at 6-5 on Saturday against eight opponents. His loss means that the Triple Crown will go unclaimed yet again. It has not been swept since Affirmed in 1978. The current drought is the longest since the Triple Crown was first won by Sir Barton in 1919.

The final leg of the Triple Crown is the Belmont Stakes on June 9 in New York. Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, said he would not go on to the Belmont. Asmussen said he would consider the Belmont for Curlin.

Xchanger and Flying First Class came blazing away from the gate and set fractions of 22.83 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 45.75 for a half-mile. Hard Spun, sitting in the garden spot in third, moved aggressively as the field neared the far turn and took the lead through six furlongs in 1:09.80.

At that point, Curlin was closer to Hard Spun than Street Sense, but Street Sense was flying. Under jockey Calvin Borel, Street Sense threaded his way through traffic without having to lose much ground, and got through inside of Curlin. But Curlin, who Albarado said had trouble negotiating the turns, came back once he straightened away in the homestretch.

"It feels awesome," Albarado said. Compared to the Derby, Albarado said Curlin "felt like a different horse the first quarter-mile, he felt like different horse the last quarter-mile."

"The first part of the race he felt like a 2-year-old, the last part of the race he felt like a 5-year-old," he said.

Curlin won the first three starts of his career, including the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby. The Kentucky Derby was only his fourth start.

Curlin did not make his debut until Feb. 3. Following his runaway victory that day against maidens, he was purchased privately by a partnership that includes Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables, Satish Sanan's Padua Stables, and George Bolton, and was transferred from trainer Helen Pitts to Asmussen. The original owners, the Midnight Cry Stable of Shirley Cunningham Jr. and William Gallion, retained 20 percent of Curlin.

Street Sense had been 3 for 3 around two turns on conventional dirt. Neither Borel nor Nafzger offered any significant excuses for the loss.

"He just got outrun the last part a little bit," Nafzger said, adding that Street Sense "backs out" of the bridle when he makes the lead.

"He pulled up a little bit the last 40 yards," Borel said, "but I can't take anything away from the winner. I went by the winner. I thought I was home free."

Todd Pletcher, who sent out both Circular Quay and King of the Roxy, is now 0 for 28 in Triple Crown races.

- additional reporting by David Grening