05/13/2010 11:00PM

Derby-Preakness timetable still sufficient

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Win the Kentucky Derby, and you don't get to pick the next start for your horse. The Derby winner's follow-up race is pre-ordained: Two weeks later, he will be at Pimlico Race Course, attempting to add the second leg of the Triple Crown to the Derby trophy already on the mantelpiece.

Two weeks. That's the blink of an eye in the world of the modern Thoroughbred. This is the era of racehorse rest. Where horses once regularly came back for more racing a week after a start, now the typical break between races for a fit, sound animal is closer to a month.

"I seldom run them back in less than a month," said trainer Barclay Tagg, who won the 2003 Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide. "The Triple Crown is very difficult - that's why nobody wins the darn thing."

So, the Derby-Preakness turnaround has become an anomaly. But wrapped inside that anomaly is an irony: The right Derby horse, especially the winner, actually seems to do just fine with a mere 14 days between Triple Crown races. During the last 16 years, the winner of the Derby has finished first or second in the Preakness 11 times. Giacomo was third in 2005, Barbaro broke down in 2006, Monarchos finished sixth in 2001, and Grindstone didn't run in the 1996 Preakness.

"I found that if you came out of the Derby all right, it was actually perfect timing," said Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew to a Triple Crown in 1977. "You only had to give your horse one breeze, maybe a blowout, and run him. Your horse, if he's run a mile and a quarter in the Derby, you're not going to get him any fitter. Just get him over the bangs and bruises he might have suffered."

"Actually, it all has to do with the horse," said three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. "Usually, a horse that wins the Derby is a good horse that's peaking and in the zone, and is doing really well. The Preakness, it's the easiest of all the [Triple Crown] races."

That perspective was echoed by Carl Nafzger, who won Derbies with Street Sense and Unbridled.

"The two weeks is not hard to do, because you're already there," Nafzger said. "Longer would be worse. Cause then you'd have to worry."

"You get to the Preakness on momentum," said trainer Neil Drysdale, who won the Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. "I think more so nowadays, you do very little training between."

Indeed, the post-Derby schedule for Seattle Slew 33 years ago emerged from a different mindset. For starters, Seattle Slew left his Churchill stall for morning training with the final bars of "My Old Kentucky Home" still floating on the breeze.

"Seattle Slew flew out of Churchill on Sunday morning after the Derby, and we trained him that morning after the Derby so we could have him relaxed enough to get on the plane back to New York," Turner said. "We gave him a good jog. All that horse wanted to do was work. Washed him, cooled him out, and put him on the plane."

Turner said he believes he gave Seattle Slew a short blowout after arriving at Pimlico, but he remembers clearly working Slew five furlongs back in New York the week before the Preakness. By comparison, Super Saver, the 2010 Derby winner, had a light three-furlong breeze Monday morning. Lookin At Lucky, Baffert's Derby-to-Preakness starter this year, will go into the Triple Crown's second leg without a work at all.

"In those days a horse that was doing well, the timing was to run every two weeks," Turner said. "Slew, in his 2-year-old year, he ran three times in 21 days, and he was 2-year-old champion."

Tagg said that decades ago in Maryland, he used to run maiden winners back six days later in an entry-level allowance race.

"Years ago I'd run them back in a week, but then everybody did," Tagg said. "The racing secretary in Maryland, he always put up an 'a-other-than' six days after the maiden race, and if you won, you were expected to run back."

Funny Cide's schedule was much lighter. Like Seattle Slew, he shipped back to New York the day after winning the Derby. Then came three days of walking, a day of jogging, several gallops, and a half-mile work 10 days after the Derby. The pattern served Funny Cide well: He won the Preakness.

"Really, I think the secret is you don't do a whole lot," said John Servis, who won the 2004 Derby and Preakness with Smarty Jones. "They ran a mile and a quarter two weeks ago, so they're not going to get too much more fit than that. From a physical standpoint, I thought my horse was fine. I wanted him tearing the barn down and ready to go after someone. I trained him really light, got him to where he was full of himself."

Servis chose not to give Smarty Jones any kind of timed workout after the Derby.

"Jack Van Berg called me after he read in the paper I was not working my horse, and he told me that was a smart thing," Servis said. "He said that was the mistake he made - working between races."

Alysheba, like Smarty Jones, got through the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but lost the Belmont Stakes.

Big Brown, another Derby-Preakness winner, also didn't have a published work between the first two Triple Crown races. Trainer Rick Dutrow gave Big Brown a short blowout the morning of the Preakness, but that was as fast as the horse had run since crossing the wire first in the Derby.

"Some horse run back good in two weeks, some won't, and I couldn't tell you which ones would do it, and which ones won't," Dutrow said "It's a very difficult thing to do that, though, to run big, then run back big."

But one will regularly see Dutrow, unlike trainers such as Tagg, bringing horses back after a race while the iron is still very hot.

"I like three, four, five days," he said. "That seems to work with a lot of horses."

Nafzger said he put one post-Derby work each into both Street Sense in 2007 and Unbridled in 1990. Both finished second at Pimlico.

"You're peaking on the Derby, and what I did, I just used that race to get to the next one," Nafzger said. "I blew them out to get the chicken dinner out of them, not to empty them out."

"A good horse will swell up on [the Derby], and you can get another good race in them," Nafzger continued. "A good horse will like it."

Nafzger said Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud "taught me, when you run a horse, don't train him too hard, don't hone him on the rail, let that horse get a good race, then run him back in 10 days with a light half-mile, a little three-eighths. A race will put 30 days of training in a young horse."

Some horses that run well and lose in the Derby have faltered after the two-week Preakness turnaround.

Cavonnier, who suffered the narrowest of losses in the 1996 Derby, "backed up on me afterwards," Baffert said. So did Congaree, who was third in the Derby and Preakness. "It depends on how hard they run, and how taxing it is."

The two-week turnaround also can work well for an improving, adequately talented horse who, for whatever reason, failed to fire in the Derby. Baffert-trained Point Given was just such an animal, as was Louis Quatorze in 1996.

"We really liked him, but he was 16th in the Derby," said trainer Nick Zito. "What I did with him was, because he was 16th and I didn't understand it, I actually worked him pretty quick between the Derby and Preakness, and he broke the track record."

The history speaks clearly: Even the modern racehorse, reputedly more fragile and less durable than brethren of earlier generations, can overcome the brief two-week interval between Derby and Preakness. That's fine. But it's not at Pimlico that the effects of the short rest start to show up. It's afterward, as the Belmont approaches.

Said Drysdale, "Personally, I think it's not the two weeks, but it's the three weeks till the third one that catches you - and seems to catch every one."

"The tricky thing is the next one, when you have the three weeks," said Tagg, who watched Funny Cide finish third at Belmont trying to win a Triple Crown.

It is a challenge that the connections of Super Saver only hope they get to tackle.