05/17/2006 12:00AM

Even if rivals do better, Barbaro still best


PHILADELPHIA - Well, that didn't take long. The romanticists conceded the Triple Crown to Barbaro at the Churchill Downs eighth pole. The revisionists didn't even wait for Barbaro to gallop out in the Kentucky Derby before they found fault with the best Derby performance in a generation.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. As a charter member of the Barbaro fan club, I am trying very hard not to succumb to Barbaro mania. Having been at Belmont Park eight times when a horse had a chance at the Triple Crown, I know for sure how difficult this really is. Thus, you must consider the history, but you also can't be a slave to it.

I am trying very hard to forget what I saw in 1997, 1998, and 2004 when a Triple Crown seemed more than possible in the stretch. I am just looking at 2006.

What do we really know? We know Barbaro has now finished in front of 73 horses, some of them several times. We know Barbaro got a 111 Beyer Speed Figure in the Derby. We know he tracked a fast pace and came home much faster than horses near that kind of pace are supposed to come home.

We know Barbaro got a perfect trip, but we also know the colt always gets a perfect trip. Isn't that an attribute rather than a knock?

Here is what the Derby told us. Barbaro is even faster than his past performances suggested. The colt was in the race immediately because of his great speed.

Remember how so many said any horse near this Derby pace would not last. Never have so many been so wrong so completely.

Before the Derby, the knock was that Barbaro hadn't raced in too long. Heading into the Preakness, it will be that Barbaro is racing too soon. Which is it?

Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, was never trying to win just the Derby. He has always been trying to win the Triple Crown. Which is why Barbaro was in so few races leading up to the Derby. Matz knows three races in five weeks is unnatural, so he figured why waste any races before the big show.

To me, the key to the Derby was the gallop out. Standing on the porch outside the Churchill Downs press box, I looked to my right after the first few horses crossed the wire. I wanted to see who was still running. Barbaro was still running, really running. By the time Barbaro made his way around the first turn again, he was 20 lengths in front. This was not a tired horse.

Now, we are hearing a lot about reaction, about bouncing, and about all those other terms that people who have never actually seen a horse train will be tossing about. More likely than any of that is that Matz and his team had Barbaro ready to deliver a top performance at the right moment and that the Derby was the colt's dramatic improvement as a 3-year-old that we see each spring.

Is it reasonable to wonder how Barbaro will come back after just two weeks? Absolutely.

Will the Preakness be run differently than the Derby? Probably.

Is 4-5, which he will be in the Preakness, as appetizing as 6-1, which he was in the Derby? Obviously not.

I think it is most likely that what we saw in the Derby is what we are going to see in the Preakness. Matz brought an incredibly fit horse to Kentucky. Barbaro is not going to lose that fitness in two weeks. Or three weeks after that.

Placed in the context of his career, Barbaro's Derby performance simply can't be a fluke. It was the natural progression of a horse who came to the Derby with an incredible foundation of intelligent training and distance races on grass, in the slop, and on fast tracks.

Like everybody else, I saw what happened to Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint. The question is: If you believe as I do that Barbaro is quite likely to repeat his Derby performance, did they have 9 1/2 and 13 lengths worth of trouble, respectively?

Will both those colts go much better if they are nearer the lead, back in their comfort zones? You would have to think so.

Or does Barbaro just have more early speed than either of them? Could Barbaro get the same trip he had in the Derby, sitting off the pace of Like Now and Bernardini? And, if so, why would the result be any different?

I thought Barbaro was the most likely Derby winner, but I didn't anticipate what went down. Now that I've seen it, I am choosing to believe it.