04/16/2007 12:00AM

History lesson may not apply to Curlin


NEW YORK - Not to take anything away from Barbaro, but his achievement last year of becoming the first horse in 50 years to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced for five weeks or longer will look like small potatoes if Curlin wins two weeks from Saturday. And with the way he won the Arkansas Derby last Saturday at Oaklawn Park, there is a strong chance that Curlin will be the Kentucky Derby favorite.

That Curlin could even be in such a position speaks volumes about his ability and his monstrous potential. It also says a lot about the way the rest of this Derby prep season unfolded. While Barbaro "merely" had to overcome one historical obstacle that was a half-century old, Curlin has two major barriers to smash that combine for 217 years of history. Curlin did not race last year as a 2-year-old. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby who did not race at 2 was Apollo in 1882. Curlin will bring only three career starts into the Derby. The last horse to win the Derby off only three career starts was the filly Regret in 1915. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to go on record and state unequivocally that Curlin cannot overcome these significant historical factors.

There is good reason for that. This year's Derby prep season began with a cast thought to be a cut above average, but not one horse has stepped up to capture the imagination, save for Curlin. Until he posted a front-running romp in his debut in early February, Curlin wasn't even on anyone's Derby list.

Although Curlin won his debut by a double-digit margin, earning a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure, there is a long list of horses who have done the same and then were stuck for life in allowance races. But last month's Rebel really proved Curlin's ability. Curlin easily absorbed a leap in both class and distance, as well as a new closing style, and aired.

Curlin's Arkansas Derby was even better. You had to like his show of positional early speed, which will be a huge asset in a big Kentucky Derby field. And you had to love the way he powerfully drew away late and ran right through the finish line. Even though he was unchallenged, Curlin went his final furlong in 11.91 seconds. That strongly suggests the Derby's 1 1/4 miles will not be a problem.

The way he ran off and hid, you might have expected Curlin to earn a bigger Beyer than a 103. But 103 stands as the highest two-turn Beyer this year for any Kentucky Derby aspirant - more evidence of how the rest of this group failed to step up - and was more than enough to enable Curlin to upstage Saturday's bizarre Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

With Street Sense and Great Hunter in the field, many people thought the Blue Grass would be one of the strongest Derby preps this year. Instead, this Blue Grass, the first run on Polytrack, proved a textbook example of why some horseplayers can't bring themselves to accept at face value the results of races run on synthetic surfaces.

Any time a horse establishes a clear early lead through fractions of 26.12 seconds, 51.46, and 1:16.65, on a surfaced labeled fast he is supposed to win, even if that horse is the distance-challenged Teuflesberg. Granted, Teuflesberg was beaten only two heads and a nose. But the fact that he didn't win by open lengths after setting trotting horse fractions, or that Dominican and Street Sense were able to close into those fractions to finish one-two, was another example of how pace is often rendered meaningless on Polytrack. In the history of racing on dirt, there has been no factor more important than pace.

Even the winning Beyer in the Blue Grass of 93 is open to question because the pace was so much slower than in all the races that preceded it, which makes finalizing a number difficult. But 93 - pathetic for a final major prep for the Kentucky Derby - seems like an excellent projection. It says that Zanjero, who finished third, ran pretty much the way he always does and that Teuflesberg ran a bit better than his distant third to Curlin in the Rebel.

If there is anything to take out of the Blue Grass, it is that Dominican likes synthetic surfaces (he is now 3 for 3 on Polytrack, and 0 for 4 on conventional dirt) and that Street Sense regressed off his narrow win over Any Given Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby, just like Any Given Saturday did a week earlier in the Wood Memorial. Despite regressing significantly, Street Sense still almost won. Now all he has to do is rebound, and hope to be the first horse in 23 years to win the Derby off two prep races at 3. Compared with the two centuries of combined racing history that Curlin will be looking to overcome, it could be a piece of cake.