03/19/2007 12:00AM

Does Street Sense have more to give?


NEW YORK - Knowing that, like humans, horses are individuals, and each will not always react identically to similar circumstances, let the debate begin: Was Street Sense's hard-fought victory over Any Given Saturday in Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby too draining an effort off a long layoff for a colt with Kentucky Derby aspirations? Or was it just the kind of race Street Sense needed to gird him for the tougher battles that lie ahead?

We already know where Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, stands on the issue. Not surprisingly, he said right after the Tampa Bay Derby that last year's champion 2-year-old male needed a hard race first time back. Perhaps having something to do with that is the fact that if he is to make it to the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense will have only two prep races at 3, with the Blue Grass at Keeneland being his next scheduled start. Of course, having just two prep races at 3 has proved sufficient enough of a foundation to win the Kentucky Derby only once in the last 60 years. So maybe Street Sense's connections aren't unhappy in the least about him cramming three races' worth of effort and exertion into two preps. But most horses who come out of the kind of gut-wrenching battles that Street Sense engaged in cannot avoid a downturn in form in their next start or two. So it was hard to watch the stretch run of this Tampa Bay Derby and not wonder, "Is Street Sense winning this battle, but losing the war?"

And that's a pity for a couple of reasons. First, this Tampa Bay Derby was a sensational race between two fine colts of considerable ability. As much credit as Street Sense deserves for being so game and determined to prevail by a bob of the nose off a four-month absence, Any Given Saturday deserves equal credit. As Street Sense was able to negotiate a rail-skimming trip, Any Given Saturday went three to four wide on the far turn, and that ground-loss had to have played a role in the outcome. This Tampa Bay Derby was indeed one of the most exciting Triple Crown prep races in recent years. But instead of just enjoying it for the terrific race it was, the actual result in a race like this is usually overshadowed by the impact the outcome has on the larger Kentucky Derby picture. That is just the nature of the Kentucky Derby prep beast.

The other reason why it was a bit unfortunate that the overall Kentucky Derby implications of the Tampa Bay Derby overshadowed the race itself is because Street Sense went a long way toward proving that his 10-length win in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile was not a fluke. For Street Sense to have run as well as he did Saturday, let alone prevail, against an opponent like Any Given Saturday - who had the twin advantages of a recent outing and a race over the track - speaks highly of his quality.

So, back to the big question: Will the hard race Street Sense ran on Saturday actually set him back when it comes to the goal of having him at his peak on Kentucky Derby Day? I don't know why, but as I watched Street Sense battle Any Given Saturday down the stretch, I thought of Read the Footnotes. Read the Footnotes was a fine 2-year-old, having won the Nashua and Remsen in 2003. When he made his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, he engaged in a battle with Second of June not unlike the one seen in Tampa on Saturday. Read the Footnotes prevailed in fast time. That hard-fought comeback, though, instead of moving Read the Footnotes forward, knocked the pins out from under him. He gave way as the favorite in the subsequent Florida Derby, and gave way in the Kentucky Derby. Read the Footnotes never raced again.

No one, including his connections, knows for sure how Street Sense will react from his comeback until he actually races again. But there are a few differences between Street Sense's scenario and the example of Read the Footnotes. Even though Street Sense ran fast enough to break the track record for 1 1/16 miles at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, he didn't run crazy-fast. Beyer Speed Figures take into account the relative speed of the racing surface, and Street Sense earned a Beyer of 101. Since that figure falls below the 108 he earned in the Breeders' Cup, that is a number he can build on. When Read the Footnotes won his Fountain of Youth, he got a Beyer of 113, which was crazy-fast, and a career top at that stage of his life by a big margin. If Read the Footnotes was capable of improving on that number, he would have had to have been the second coming of Secretariat, which, of course, he wasn't.

The other difference is, Street Sense is a champion. And over the years you learn that it is never wise to underestimate the heart of a champion.