08/03/2007 12:00AM

Curtain going up on next act


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Now that the silly season of the Triple Crown has mercifully passed, it is time to find out which of the nation's best 3-year-olds are in for the long haul, and which ones were nothing but bright flashes in a very hot pan.

The Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense fired the first shot last weekend at Saratoga, where he won the Jim Dandy Stakes with a professional effort that should set him up well for the Travers Stakes later in the month. Now, on Sunday at Monmouth Park in the $1 million Haskell Invitational, it is up to Preakness winner Curlin and Derby runner-up Hard Spun to let Street Sense know he is not alone.

Of the 20 young runners who went forth in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, only Curlin and Hard Spun ended up running in all three Triple Crown events. This is unusual and admirable, harking back to a time when Thoroughbreds could stand the gaff of steady training and racing and keep coming back for more.

They are both back for more in the nine-furlong Haskell, looking sharp and fully recovered from their Triple Crown adventures. Emphasis on adventures.

Curlin was handcuffed early in the Derby and managed to come on late for third, while Hard Spun, cruising along happily at the front, beat them all but Street Sense. In the Preakness it was Curlin who got the better trip to beat Street Sense in a memorable finish, while Hard Spun ended up in a speed duel down the backstretch that left him a spent, gallant third.

Then came the Belmont, and both colts were dusted by a chick, coming fresh of Todd Pletcher's deep bench. Rags to Riches nailed down her place in history with a narrow win over Curlin, but Hard Spun could do no better than a distant fourth, suggesting the 1 1/2 miles might have been a bridge too far.

"Just imagine what a horse goes through running in those three races," said Scott Blasi, trainer Steve Asmussen's top assistant at Camp Curlin. "There were 160,000 at the Derby, 108,000 at the Preakness and another 68,000 at the Belmont, and it seemed that they all wanted to pet him on the nose at one time or another."

An exaggeration, of course, but the point was taken. The public's access to Derby and Preakness horses is laughably generous. Trainers must find a way to protect their classic 3-year-olds from undue hassle without alienating fans and the media, especially when a colt has the star potential of Curlin.

"Since the Belmont, it's been nice and quiet for him," Blasi said Thursday morning, in a decidedly mellow corner of Monmouth's Barn 3. "Nothing much bothers him anyway - he lays down all the time - but he's a very intelligent horse, and he likes to know where he is. So we school him, and take him to the gate. Maybe cut down on the chances there will be something that surprises him."

At that point, Curlin stuck his very pettable nose over the screen door of his stall and gave Blasi the eye. Lunch was over. It was almost time for a nap, and then a schooling session in the Monmouth paddock.

About that same time, Hard Spun was on the road to Monmouth from his Delaware Park headquarters, where Larry Jones has been training the son of Danzig since the June 9 Belmont.

Looking back, Jones would not refuse a do-over in either the Preakness or the Belmont. Without intending to toss excuses, he correctly points out that his colt got trips from two different jockeys (Mario Pino and Garrett Gomez) that were "180 degrees at opposite ends of the spectrum" in the two classics, both of them a far cry from the steady, one-paced bulldog style that stood Hard Spun so well in not only the Derby, but also his victory in the Lane's End at Turfway.

"Nobody was trying to be mischievous," Jones said, frustration seeping into his Kentucky cowboy drawl. "I just think there was a lot of tension in those races. It's like shooting free throws. You can't be tense. And this is coming from a guy who missed a lot of free throws."

Jones did nothing but walk his colt under the shed row for a couple of weeks after the Belmont before going back to work. But since Hard Spun's recent breezes have matched Curlin's, there should be no doubt about relative fitness come Sunday afternoon. Anyway, Jones was able to get Hard Spun ready for his brilliant Kentucky Derby effort without a race for six weeks, a fact that had the rookie Derby trainer under a media microscope.

"Yeah, I kind of painted a target on the cowboy doing that," Jones said. "But I tried not to let it bother me. I talked to guys like John Servis and Tim Ritchey. They told me to enjoy it as you go along, because chances are it might never happen again."

Servis, of course, trained Smarty Jones, winner of the 2004 Derby and Preakness and second-place finisher in the Belmont. The following year, Ritchey sent out Afleet Alex to finish a close third in the Derby and then win the Preakness and the Belmont. After competing in the entire Triple Crown series, neither Smarty Jones nor Afleet Alex made it as far as the Haskell, which already puts Curlin and Hard Spun in a different category.

"They may be hailing Curlin as a superhorse someday," Jones said, then added, "But Hard Spun is a good horse, if only because he's overcome my training."