05/31/2006 12:00AM

Great showdowns all but extinct


PHILADELPHIA - So, what if?

What if Barbaro does not get hurt and duplicates his Kentucky Derby form? Or like Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Afleet Alex, from the last three years, he runs even better in the Preakness than the Derby? What happens then?

Bernardini was really good. The 113 Beyer Speed Figure says something. The huge margins at the finish line say something, too. First to fifth was 23 1/4 lengths. When you see a figure that seems a bit out of the ordinary, the margins usually are a giveaway.

Whenever you see an extraordinary number where the top four horses are separated by a length, that is something to be looked at with skepticism. Whenever you see something like the Preakness, you can generally assume the figure will hold up.

Visually, Bernardini was very similar to Barbaro in the Derby. The difference, really, is that going into the Derby, there were expectations for Barbaro. There really weren't many for Bernardini before the Preakness.

Once the race is over, it is generally a wise idea to forget what you thought you knew and concentrate on what you know now. I think Bernardini is for real.

Which brings us back to the original question. What if?

It would not be hard to imagine Barbaro and Bernardini aiming for the same space into the first turn, given the pace and rider intentions. At some point, the two colts would have been asked for their best. We saw what Bernardini had in Baltimore. We saw what Barbaro had in Kentucky when he got a 111 Beyer and kept running past the finish line like the race was just starting.

Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, admittedly is a bit biased. He thinks he knows how the race was going to end up.

"I just thought for sure this horse was going to win the Triple Crown,'' Matz said. "He just did everything right. The two weeks were just going so good for him. Everything was good. His blood was good.

"You know this is the part that makes you scratch your head. When you think everything is so right and it's still so wrong. But what are we going to do?

"I think I'm at the point now where I'm mad that he couldn't show the public what a great horse he was. I guess you get over that.''

Actually, you don't. Matz knows it. We all know it.

He thinks and we think about what might have been - in the Preakness. And beyond.

"It's just a shame for racing and for him,'' Matz said. "I don't know how good this horse really was. He galloped that morning like it was going to take a hell of a horse to beat him, that's for sure.''

On the day, Bernardini was a hell of a horse, racing against the clock in the stretch, quite lonely at the finish line, a mirror image of Barbaro in the Derby.

Whatever might have happened, it makes me think about all those races we never get to see anymore - Afleet Alex against Saint Liam, Smarty Jones against Ghostzapper, you know the ones.

Remember when Seattle Slew beat Affirmed and Affirmed beat Spectacular Bid in successive years? That seems like a million years ago. Now, we get a performance to remember. Or two. Or three.

Then, something horrible happens. And we wonder what might have been.

The obvious question is: Why does this keep happening? Is it the spacing of the Triple Crown races, so out of touch with the way top stakes are raced in the 2000's? Is it just a horrible run of bad luck? Is it something with no answer?

What we know for sure is that there hasn't been a single Triple Crown star this decade that had any say in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Either they were hurt and retired (Point Given, Smarty Jones), hurt and subsequently retired (Afleet Alex), far from their Derby form (Fusaichi Pegasus, War Emblem, Funny Cide) or, this year, had a career-ending injury.

Something is wrong when our answer to every race we would really like to see is a question - what if?