05/17/2007 12:00AM

Derby winner likely to face reversal of fortune


BALTIMORE - The Kentucky Derby left no doubt about the identity of the top 3-year-old in America. Street Sense, the champion of his generation last season, confirmed his status by soundly defeating his 19 rivals at Churchill Downs. He will be a strong favorite to win the Preakness.

Yet many serious handicappers, myself included, will be very wary of betting Street Sense at Pimlico, even though the field is smaller and weaker than the one he trounced two weeks ago. In fact, he is the type of favorite that gamblers love to bet against.

Whenever a horse wins big after benefiting from a perfect trip, it is usually smart to take a position against him in his next start. He will invariably go off at short odds, and he will rarely get the same breaks twice in a row.

Everybody who watched NBC's overhead shot of the Derby was able to see how the race unfolded in Street Sense's favor. Calvin Borel angled to the rail almost immediately and stayed there for most of the race as he rallied from 19th place. He had to go outside one rival on the turn and before surging past the leader, Hard Spun, in the stretch. It is a rough rule of thumb that a horse loses one length for each horse-width that he is removed from the rail on a turn. If Street Sense had to make his move five or six wide - as late runners often do in a field of 20 - he might not have beaten Hard Spun.

Street Sense may not be blessed with such good fortune at Pimlico, and it is no certainty that he will be ready to deliver his maximum performance again. I wrote before the Derby that I liked Street Sense, despite his two so-so races in 2007, because trainer Carl Nafzger had spent months pointing him for the Derby - just as he had done with Unbridled in 1990. Unbridled scored one of the most powerful Derby victories ever, but he lost both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and didn't win another stakes race until October.

Unfortunately, if a bettor is willing take a stand against the Preakness favorite, he doesn't have many options. The second- and third-place Derby finishers, Hard Spun and Curlin, look like the most credible challengers, although the two Todd Pletcher entrants, Circular Quay and King of the Roxy, have outside shots. (Circular Quay, who finished sixth in Louisville, had come into the Derby off an eight-week absence from competition, and he might be fitter coming off a two-week break.)

Curlin will get plenty of support in Baltimore. He had raced only three times in his career before the Derby, and although he had won them all impressively, his lack of seasoning figured to hurt him in a 20-horse scramble. Probably it did. Curlin encountered traffic trouble twice in the run to the first turn, failed to secure a good early position, and yet turned in a creditable effort to finish third. He is clearly a talented colt. But he has already done so much in so little time - advancing from maiden company to the 3-year-old classics in the span of three months - that it seems unlikely he can take another huge leap forward and make up the eight lengths by which Street Span beat him. It is more likely that he will regress.

Hard Spun is the threat to Street Sense - and a very serious threat. He came into the Derby with a solid 5-for-6 career record and he ran very well. He dueled for the lead into the first turn at a fast clip, outran the three other speedsters who were pressing him (they finished 17th, 19th and 20th), and lost by only 2 1/4 lengths.

This performance was hardly as eye-catching as Street Sense's rally from 19th place. But Hard Spun ran the Derby the hard way, because it is always difficult to force a fast pace and still be competitive at the end of 1 1/4 miles. Conversely, it is easy for a stretch-runner to make up many lengths in a fast-paced Derby - providing his jockey keeps him out of trouble. In no American dirt race do horses so often win from so far behind.

Since 1990, eight horses have won the Derby by rallying from 12th place or farther behind. Seven of them ran back in the Preakness, and all of them lost. The Derby is a unique race that often makes those fast finishers look better than they really are. That's why Hard Spun can turn the tables Saturday on the colt who beat him decisively at Churchill Downs.