05/11/2006 11:00PM

If Spectacular Bid can fail, so can Barbaro


PHOENIX - There wouldn't be many people happier than me to see Barbaro go on and win the Triple Crown. His Derby run was so satisfying I was thinking about putting the replay on a continuous loop on my computer. The move he made to go from stalker to winner was breathtaking, and it appears that the world is at his feet.

But I'm not so rash as to think this a done deal. Not by a longshot. If Spectacular Bid can miss winning the Triple Crown, then any horse can. It requires not only greatness but also some luck. Barbaro needs to stay healthy - no safety pins allowed anywhere near him, please - and needs to stay sharp. He also needs to catch a break in terms of competition and not get confronted by a rival like Majestic Prince's Arts and Letters in 1969 or some rested, up-and-coming beast waiting for him in the Preakness or Belmont.

Make no mistake, as great as Barbaro looked in the Derby there still is a reason to respect the opposition.

Brother Derek lost nothing in defeat. True, he cannot be considered the 3-year-old-male division leader any longer, but any questions about his talent or heart were dismissed in the Derby. Already up against it coming out of post 18, Brother Derek was stuck very wide all the way around. While Barbaro worked his way into an ideal trip, Brother Derek still probably doesn't know what color the inside rail is at Churchill Downs. He also threw a shoe.

Despite being no match for Barbaro, Brother Derek did some good things. For one, he settled, and did so nicely. There had been plenty of speculation going into the Derby that his habit of pulling early would lead to his demise in the Derby. The wide trip was unavoidable and certainly had a bearing on his finish. But Brother Derek proved not only that he's not a need-the-lead type, but also that he could pass other horses and keep on running. His connections have every right to go to Pimlico and hope for the best, no doubt remembering such Derby losers as Snow Chief, Hansel, and Afleet Alex, who came back and won the Preakness.

The connections of Sweetnorthernsaint have cause for optimism, too. He and Private Vow caromed off one another at the start to lose position, but Sweetnorthernsaint made a sustained early run down the backside and actually got even terms with Barbaro at the midpoint of the far turn. Sweetnorthernsaint had used considerable energy to get back into the race, and called it a day when they straightened for home.

The devastating fashion of Barbaro's Derby win appears to be limiting the number of rivals he'll have to take on in the Preakness, and that alone boosts his Triple Crown chances. Should another monster performance be forthcoming from him, I imagine there would be a mere handful willing to take him on in the final leg at Belmont Park on June 10.

But first things first. Barbaro has to get past the Preakness, which won't be easy if he regresses off such a huge race or has trouble with the quick turnaround - or if Brother Derek shows up with his "A" game.

Two others, one equine the other human, made a mark last weekend:

* While the margin of English Channel's victory in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve wasn't much, there wasn't much doubt who was best. English Channel was good enough last year as a 3-year-old to be competitive with the best older turf horses, and now at age 4 he has developed from a boy to a man. He'll be extremely tough in any of the turf distance races, and next may be the Grade 1 Manhattan on the Belmont Stakes undercard. There, he may meet Grey Swallow, the 2004 Irish Derby winner, who was to run in Saturday's Grade 2 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.

* I don't know his name - the gate crew guys are anonymous and unsung - but whoever saved things in the Kentucky Oaks deserves some praise. Ex Caelis was lined up for the Oaks, and suddenly reared. She was basically sitting, flailing away in a panic and was close to flipping over backward, which easily could have been a disaster. But one of the assistant starters stood his ground at the front of the gate, and while Ex Caelis lashed back and tried to flip over he pulled hard and brought her head back forward. That brought her momentum back toward the front and she was back on her feet. The man in the gate may well have saved her life, not to mention potential injuries to others.