05/10/2007 11:00PM

Don't expect a Street Sense runaway

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NEW YORK - There hasn't been a close or really competitive Preakness since Magic Weisner fell three-quarters of a length short of catching War Emblem back in 2002. Funny Cide galloped by 9 3/4 lengths in 2003, Smarty Jones romped by 11 1/2 in 2004, and Afleet Alex won by 4 3/4 in 2005, a margin that would have been even larger had he not almost fallen. Then last year, Bernardini won by 5 1/4 after Barbaro was pulled up.

Is Street Sense, clearly best in the Kentucky Derby, going to continue the parade of daylight winners? Obviously he should be the favorite, but there's enough legitimate competition and intriguing scenarios to suggest that another runaway is unlikely.

For one thing, the first three finishers from the Derby are all scheduled to return, which has been the exception rather than the rule in recent years. Four of the last seven Derby runners-up passed the Preakness when their trainers, Bobby Frankel (Aptitude in 2000 and Empire Maker in 2002) and Todd Pletcher (Invisible Ink in 2001 and Bluegrass Cat in 2006), chose to rest and reload for the Belmont.

Hard Spun and Curlin, however, are both being pointed for the second leg of the Triple Crown, and there are logical arguments to be made on behalf of both. Hard Spun should relish the slightly shorter distance of the Preakness and has an extra edge in Mario Pino, who knows and rides Pimlico as well as Calvin Borel does Churchill Downs. There may be more early speed in the Preakness than there was in the Derby, but Hard Spun is not an intractable need-the-lead type, has won twice by stalking, and could fall into a perfect trip sitting just behind the hopeless speedballs in the field.

Curlin has the most upside of anyone, as he will be making just his fifth career start. While he was beaten eight lengths in the Derby and has yet to run a big figure, he showed class and quality working his way through some traffic to beat 17 of his Derby rivals, and could be sitting on the race of his life.

Street Sense may simply be better than both of them, but he needs to prove it outside Churchill Downs. As brilliantly as he was prepared for the Derby, as part of a textbook six-month plan that unfolded perfectly, trainer Carl Nafzger admitted the morning after the race that he had been so single-mindedly focused on the Derby that he had given no particular thought or preparation to the Preakness.

If all three of the Preakness principals fire, it could be an excellent renewal, and if Street Sense can prevail in such a scenario, it could be a more meaningful prelude to a Triple Crown bid than Funny Cide's or Smarty Jones's one-sided romps.

Two ways of looking at it

The account-wagering turmoil surrounding the Derby was a massive inconvenience for horseplayers who were shut out of betting the race when TrackNet Media, the new partnership between Churchill Downs and Magna, froze out some third-party providers including TVG and YouBet. The total drop in account-wagering handle from around $11 million last year to under $7 million this year was largely responsible for the first decline in overall Derby handle in 16 years.

"TrackNet Media refused to sell the Derby simulcast to ADW's [account-deposit wagering companies] unless they dropped top content from other tracks," said Chuck Champion, YouBet's chief executive. "They presumed to be taking a shot at their competitors. Problem is, they ended up shooting not only themselves, but an entire industry."

Churchill saw it differently. On a quarterly earnings conference call with analysts Wednesday, Churchill officials said the economics of the overall results proved its direction is the correct one. They said Churchill had retained 8.25 percent of the money it handled through account wagering this year as opposed to 5.49 percent last year, reducing the actual lost revenue for the track and purses to negligible levels and suggesting they will show significant increases next year with more time to recruit customers to the company's new Twin Spires accounts.

"Everybody makes the mistake of equating handle to revenue if you're a track, and equating handle to purses if you're a horseman," said Bob Evans, Churchill's chief executive. "What has changed here dramatically is that the handle we gave up was at much lower host-fee rates than the handle we got this year."

The question now is whether these results will hold up with the rest of the year's racing, which is not as easily available on network television as the Triple Crown races. TrackNet's television-distribution vehicle, HRTV, is available to far fewer viewers than TVG. It's one thing for people to open a new account to bet on the Derby or Preakness, but far less appealing for them to migrate to a new service if they can't see the races on television.