05/16/2007 11:00PM

Jockeying for 4-1 on Street Sense

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NEW YORK - Handicapping the Preakness Stakes is often an exercise in trying to make sense of a chaotic Kentucky Derby, but this year's Derby was unusually free from traffic, trouble, and ambiguity. Street Sense was clearly the best horse winning by 2 1/4 lengths, Hard Spun ran a strong second, and it was another 5o3/4 lengths back to the inexperienced Curlin in third.

An identical order of finish in Baltimore on Saturday would be no surprise, but no self-respecting contrarian can predict such a thing, so this one won't. While I'm not going to try to beat Street Sense in the Preakness, I'm going to try to beat Hard Spun for second with either Curlin or Circular Quay. Based on the morning-line odds, an exacta of Street Sense (7-5) over Curlin (7-2) should pay around $15, while a Street Sense-Circular Quay (8-1) combo should be in the $30 neighborhood. Weighting those two combinations for a blended return of 4-1 strikes me as an attractive alternative to taking 7-5 or less on the deserving favorite.

Street Sense has yet to deliver a performance outside Churchill Downs remotely as powerful as his Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Derby triumphs, but he hasn't really been asked to, either. His final Preakness workout, five furlongs in a minute flat while running each furlong faster than the previous one, suggests he now is primed to do so Saturday. There should be plenty of early pace to set up his stretch kick, and he'll have a smaller field to work his way through.

The possibility of a contested early pace may not be a boon to Hard Spun. While he is capable of winning from a stalking position, as he did in the Lane's End, he has not done so against horses of quality. For all of his camp's whining about Street Sense's perfect trip in the Derby, the fact is that Hard Spun had a very soft time of it once he cleared the field early, widening his lead while coasting his second half-mile in a slow 50.78 seconds without anyone making a run at him. With Flying First Class likely to outrun him to the first turn Saturday, and Xchanger and King of the Roxy possibly vying for the same position just off the lead, Hard Spun is unlikely to spend the first mile of the race in the same splendid isolation.

Curlin and Circular Quay seem the right alternatives to displace him from second, not only because the race's new shooters look overmatched, but also because both colts have room to improve on their Derbies.

Curlin will be making just his fifth career start and had to benefit from the experience of the Derby, when he was in a swarm of horses early and gradually worked his way through most of the field. He may fall into a nice trip just behind the speed and get a clear run at Hard Spun turning for home. While he didn't have eight lengths' worth of trouble in the Derby, a cleaner run and another step forward could get him past Hard Spun late this time.

Circular Quay was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths for third when finishing sixth in the Derby while wide throughout. He never showed the strong kick that carried him to visually impressive victories in the Hopeful last summer and the Louisiana Derby earlier this year, but the Derby was his first race in eight weeks and his first start ever beyond 1 1/16 miles. He figures to be sharper and more seasoned now and should be rolling late. At 8-1 he is an attractive overlay, both on his own and as the bottom half of a 14-1 exacta under Street Sense.

A victory by Circular Quay (or a more unlikely triumph by King of the Roxy) would be welcome if only to silence the tedious and unfounded chorus that trainer Todd Pletcher is somehow incapable of winning a Triple Crown race. His repeatedly cited 0-for-26 record, a misleading statistic since he has had multiple starters most years, ignores more salient facts: He has never had the favorite or - even in retrospect - the best horse in any of those races, and his runners have actually outperformed their odds as often as they have disappointed. How exactly is it his fault that his Derby runners-up, Invisible Ink at 55-1 and Bluegrass Cat at 30-1, were no match for Monarchos or Barbaro?