05/21/2007 12:00AM

Preakness shows how game is changing


BALTIMORE - Saturday's Preakness Stakes was a great reminder of what it was that made so many of us fall in love with Thoroughbred racing in the first place. In Curlin and Street Sense, we had two fine 3-year-olds battling in an old-fashioned stretch duel, each giving his all with a lot more on the line than even the winner's share of the hefty $1 million purse. In fact, the endgame of this Preakness was so good that it almost didn't matter what your financial involvement was, and rare is the race that can have that effect on a bettor.

Yet this Preakness was also an example of how much the game has changed since many of us first became hooked on it. For example:

In the case of Curlin, he became the second straight winner of the Preakness, following Bernardini last year, who did not race at age 2. Now, it is true that the requirement of racing experience at 2 has never been as critical in the Preakness as it has been in the Kentucky Derby. When Red Bullet won the Preakness in 2000, he became the first to do so without having started at 2 in a mere 17 years. And it stands to reason that with the Preakness being far more like a more conventional race than its two Triple Crown counterparts, a requirement like 2-year-old experience would not carry as much weight.

Nevertheless, it is an intriguing development that the last two running of the Triple Crown's middle leg have now been won by horses who did not compete as juveniles, and it makes you wonder if Apollo - who was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby, in 1882, without having raced at 2 - might not have a horse emulate his feat in the near future. Granted, due to field size and sheer intensity, among other things, the Derby is a different animal than the Preakness. But the Derby comes only two weeks before the Preakness, and that is too small a time difference to say that one race cannot be won by a horse who didn't start at 2 when the other has turned into a playground for such horses.

At least Curlin was a throwback in one sense when he won Saturday. The Preakness was his fifth start since he began his career only 15 weeks earlier, which flies in the face of the prevailing philosophy of "the fresher the better." But it speaks volumes that even some smart folks who picked Curlin on Saturday did so with reservations, fearing that with so many starts crammed into a short time frame, he was at severe risk of "blowing up," or suffering a sharp regression of form.

Obviously, Curlin ran his best race to date, but the kind of concerns some of his backers had going in is another indication of how the game has changed.

In the case of Street Sense, there was a time not too long ago when it would have been unheard of for a horse who won the Kentucky Derby decisively and was nailed in the last jump of the Preakness to pass on a start in the Belmont Stakes, as long as he was healthy. All indications are that Street Sense came out of his tough beat in the Preakness in good shape. But although the door hasn't been completely closed on a start in the Belmont, signs point to Street Sense skipping the final leg of the Triple Crown.

"There's not really any reason to go there right now," Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, told the Pimlico press staff Sunday morning when asked about the Belmont. Nafzger has since softened his stand somewhat.

The reason to "go there" used to be that the Belmont simply means more than an average stakes race, as it is a classic event. But apparently that doesn't have the cachet it used to have, especially when you're not going for a Triple Crown sweep. It is, however, indicative of how things have changed when this philosophy has become understandable.

The Belmont has a $1 million purse, but so does Monmouth's Haskell Invitational. And instead of risking knocking your horse out by making him run 1 1/2 miles on the dirt for the only time of his life in the Belmont, you could wait for the 1 1/8-mile Haskell, and get the added bonus of getting a race over the track on which this year's Breeders' Cup Classic will be run.

And in the case of Hard Spun, and to a smaller degree Circular Quay, it used to be you could bank on horses improving second start off a layoff when they had a legitimate reason to, but perhaps not anymore.

Hard Spun ran a tremendous race finishing second in the Derby in his first start in six weeks, and Circular Quay was beaten a little more than a length by Curlin in the Derby off an eight-week layoff. Each had a license to improve in the Preakness, but instead of moving forward, both regressed. Hard Spun fell into the perfect trip early that was projected for him. He did move sooner than he had to when he tackled the front-runners midway down the backstretch, but he still looked like he had a ton of run on the far turn, only to come up empty after turning for home and finish a tired third.

Circular Quay never got out of first gear, and never entered the picture, finishing a nonthreatening fifth.

Whether some of the changes the game has seen, as underscored by the outcome of the Preakness, are actually good for the sport is a discussion for another time. But that discussion might be irrelevant when, as illustrated by the running of the Preakness, the game can still be as great as ever.