05/17/2007 12:00AM

Home track edge switches to Pino


BALTIMORE - With the playoffs in full swing in professional basketball and hockey this month, the concept of home field advantage is often used in discussing which teams may have an edge.

Home field usually is not a major variable in regard to jockeys in the Triple Crown. After all, "a racetrack is a racetrack," said Calvin Borel, the jockey of Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness favorite Street Sense.

And yet, it is difficult to ignore the way the pendulum has swung with the shift in venues from Churchill Downs to Pimlico. Strictly in terms of the number of times he had ridden around the Churchill surface, Borel, the sixth-leading jockey in career wins at Churchill, seemingly took a major edge into the May 5 Derby over Mario Pino, the jockey of Derby runner-up Hard Spun.

But with the move to Pimlico - where Pino is the all-time winningest jockey and, until Friday, Borel had never ridden even one race - is a symbolic, if not necessarily tangible, meaning in this flip-flopping of 180 degrees.

"The way Calvin rode in the Derby, he rode that race like he knew the place like the back of his hand," said Pino, who shortly after the Derby won his 5,895th race to pass the retired Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey for 15th place on the all-time wins list. "He knew every little angle. For me, I hadn't ridden there, and everything was kind of new."

Pino, 45, has been riding since 1979, with the vast majority of his wins having come at Maryland tracks. Borel, 40, grew up riding horses in south-central Louisiana, where he got his first license at 16, and has ridden primarily in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Understandably, Pino is hoping his familiarity with the Pimlico layout - and, conversely, Borel's lack of same - will give him and Hard Spun the little extra edge that on Saturday will lead to a reversal of the Derby results.

"Me winning thousands of races at Pimlico, that gives me a little at-ease," said Pino. "It's kind of like somebody on a baseball or basketball team - you'd rather drive the 15 or 20 minutes from your own house to go to work than travel hundreds of miles to a strange place."

Borel said last week before leaving Churchill: "I know I'm going to his track." But, he said, by riding two main-track races Friday and another two before the Preakness on Saturday, "hopefully I'll know how it is after I get across it a few times, get a feel of it."

Both Borel and Pino, along with the respective trainers of Street Sense and Hard Spun, Carl Nafzger and Larry Jones, agree that Churchill and Pimlico are very much alike in composition and layout - both are conventional dirt ovals with one-mile circumferences - and that home field probably will prove to be a minor issue. In any case, Borel said he believes the most important variable entering the Preakness is how Street Sense is coming into the race.

"I think I'm on the best horse, so me being new to Pimlico, that's the least of my worries," said Borel. "Like I say, this horse could run over ice. If he shows up, I'm not scared of nobody. He's going forward into this, not backward. I know Mario's got years of experience there, but he's got to worry about me, and all the other horses, too."

Said Pino: "I know you still have to go in a circle, and the horses do the running. Street Sense was awesome in the Derby, and obviously he'd be real tough if he runs that race back. There are some other real nice horses in the race, too, like Curlin. I'm just hoping to have a good trip and a safe one, and I hope the best horse wins."

At the Derby, an untold number of Churchill regulars in attendance rejoiced in a Borel victory in a display of exuberance captured on national television in poignant fashion. If Hard Spun wins Saturday, giving the local hero, Pino, his first Preakness victory, a similar sort of scenario surely would play out at Pimlico.

Those are the kind of celebrations that, in any sport, tend to result when the home fans get what they want. Of course, nothing says Hard Spun will get one inch of assistance on the racetrack simply because people in the stands are rooting for him - although Pino will gladly take anything that would get him home first. In the end, he hopes his years of experience at Pimlico will somehow play a part in the outcome.

"If it comes out to be that," he said, "it'd be a plus on my side."