05/30/2007 11:00PM

Different path, but the same target

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NEW YORK - The announcement Thursday that Street Sense is passing the Belmont Stakes next Saturday will be widely viewed as a sign of much of what is wrong with racing today: Shorter campaigns and careers, fewer marquee showdowns, the decline of the Triple Crown as a cohesive series for more than one horse, and the undue influence of the commercial stallion market on racing decisions.

This is, regrettably, how the game is played these days, but there also is some logic and precedent to trainer Carl Nafzger's decision. When faced with similar choices surrounding Unbridled 17 years ago, Nafzger went the other way in the short run but under the same guiding principle.

Unbridled and Summer Squall dominated the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1990, swapping decisions in Louisville and Baltimore somewhat the same way that Street Sense and Curlin did this year. That time it was Nafzger's rival who skipped the Belmont. Summer Squall's owners had announced even before the Preakness that they were not going to New York because their colt was a bleeder and New York did not permit Lasix at the time.

Nafzger pressed on with a Derby winner who had lost a chance at the Crown by finishing second in the Preakness, and Unbridled was the 11-10 Belmont favorite in Summer Squall's absence, in a field that drew only two other starters from the Preakness. Unbridled finished a distant fourth on a stifling, humid afternoon behind Go and Go, Thirty Six Red, and Baron de Vaux. Unbridled did not return to the races until late August, passing the Haskell and Travers for a one-mile allowance race against palookas at Arlington Park.

In that sense, Nafzger is doing the same thing with Street Sense. The point he kept coming back to as he explained his decision Thursday was that he didn't feel he could run in both the Belmont and those August stakes, and he made what he termed a close call in favor of the latter.

The difference, and one sign of how the game has changed, is in the breadth of their careers. Unbridled's second-place finish in the Preakness was his 12th career start and his sixth as a 3-year-old, while Street Sense's was only his ninth start overall and his fourth at 3. Yet Unbridled completed the series while Street Sense will not.

The rest of Unbridled's campaign was a meticulously plotted program to get him to peak in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a plan that didn't look so hot until it worked. After winning the allowance race at Arlington, Unbridled ran second in the Secretariat in his lone career start on grass, then ran a wide but unthreatening second to his inferior stablemate Home at Last in the Super Derby. Then came the Classic, where he mowed down the field as the 6-1 fourth choice, securing the 3-year-old championship.

Unbridled became the first horse to win both the Derby and the Classic in the same season, but was not the Horse of the Year, which may seem strange now but made perfect sense at the time. The field he beat in the Classic was spotty at best (Rhythm was the favorite and Ibn Bey and Thirty Six Red were second and third) and he did not face any of the nation's top older horses. The Eclipse instead went to Criminal Type, who had beaten Easy Goer and Sunday Silence at their home tracks while winning four Grade 1s to Unbridled's two. Unbridled was fortunate to duck that crew, while Street Sense may not be so lucky if Invasor is still looking invincible come October.

That could be different, and so could what happens next. In 1990, the stallion-makers were not yet so powerful to keep Unbridled and Summer Squall from returning to the races as 4-year-olds. They even met twice more, with Summer Squall prevailing by three lengths in the Fayette and then when Unbridled was third and Summer Squall ninth in the 1991 Classic won by Black Tie Affair.

Perhaps Nafzger's plan will work again, vindicating his belief that you have to pass either the Belmont or the big August races to get to the Classic. Where we may really see how much the game has changed rather than stayed the same, though, will come when the decisions are made whether to whish Curlin and Street Sense off to stud at year's end or bring them back in 2008.