05/06/2007 11:00PM

Preparation pays off for Street Sense

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If you saw the overhead replay angle of Saturday's Kentucky Derby, and you wondered if divine intervention played a role in Street Sense's resounding victory, you are not alone. You could live a lifetime and never see a horse rally from 19th in a 20-horse field, and the only times he had to come off the rail was to go around one horse, and then another, as Street Sense did when he passed Sedgefield, and then Hard Spun.

But as amazing a trip as Street Sense got, to attribute his win entirely to the grace of a higher power would be doing a great injustice to this colt, to jockey Calvin Borel's masterful ride, and to trainer Carl Nafzger's expert preparation. This team executed brilliantly, and for proof, you really don't need to search deeper than this: The fast early pace that prevailed in the Derby played to the strength of no fewer than nine other confirmed stretch-runners. But not one of them kicked as powerfully as Street Sense did, and not one of them was in the same ZIP code as Street Sense at the finish.

Yet as decisive a winner as Street Sense was, the talk of a prospective Triple Crown sweep this year doesn't seem to be nearly as intense as it was after Barbaro won the Derby last year. Perhaps folks are gun shy after the tragedy that befell Barbaro in last year's Preakness and are unwilling to make another emotional investment so soon, which would be perfectly understandable. But the more tangible reason for why people are more reserved about a Triple Crown sweep might be that, as good as he looked Saturday, Street Sense still has a few important issues to address.

For one, it is fair to ask whether Street Sense can be as effective elsewhere as he obviously is at Churchill Downs. Although Street Sense ran well when he narrowly won the Tampa Bay Derby, and narrowly missed in the Blue Grass, there is no debate that his performances in the Derby and in his Breeders' Cup Juvenile romp last fall, also at Churchill, were of substantially higher quality.

Another question is whether Street Sense can so smoothly handle Hard Spun under circumstances that aren't so tilted in his favor. Hard Spun ran a giant race in the Derby after setting a very quick pace. The other horses who were in closest attendance early to Hard Spun were Stormello, Cowtown Cat, and Teuflesberg, and they wound up 19th, 20th, and 17th. Hard Spun, meanwhile, finished almost six lengths ahead of the third finisher, the previously undefeated Curlin. While it is true the 2 1/4 lengths Street Sense had on Hard Spun at the wire seemed to feel even bigger, it is not unreasonable to think that these two might be a lot closer in terms of ability. Especially so in a scenario where Hard Spun isn't coming off a six-week layoff and isn't so fresh that he can't help himself and sets fractions more suitable to a sprint race. In other words, under the kind of scenario we are likely to see in the Preakness.

Two of the main themes going into the Derby were how closely matched the field seemed to be on paper, and how all the old established "Derby rules," such as the number of 3-year-old preps for Derby aspirants, and recency, would respond to severe challenge. Both Street Sense and Hard Spun made a mockery of the notion that this Derby was highly competitive. And as for the Derby rules, it sure seems like they no longer apply.

It isn't that all the old criteria for a successful Derby candidate were nonsense. These qualifications, established over decades, were grounded in common sense, such as fitness and seasoning. But the trainers of today's horses have decided that these rules just don't matter enough to be governed by them.

This year, four of the first six betting favorites were bucking long-standing Derby trends. Aside from attempting to become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to win the Derby since the inception of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, and first 2-year-old champion to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979, favored Street Sense also was one of five starters Saturday shooting to become only the second horse in 60 years, and the first in 23 years, to win the Derby with only two prep races at 3.

Curlin, who was the close second choice in the betting, was hoping to become the first horse in 125 years to win the Derby without having raced at 2, and the first in 92 years to win the Derby with only three career starts. Hard Spun, the fourth choice in the Derby wagering, was attempting to become the first horse in 51 years to win without having raced in six weeks. And Circular Quay, the sixth choice in the betting, was trying to become the first since who knows when to win the Derby off an eight-week layoff.

When such a high concentration of horses accorded the best chances of winning the Derby also were attempting to bring the Derby rules to their knees, there was a good shot something would give. And in a Derby that proved to be formful, with the favorite beating the fourth choice, and the second choice finishing third, the Derby rules gave way by the handful.

And because they did, you can bank on more unconventional approaches by horsemen to future Derbies. Prepare yourself. The day might not be too far off when we see a horse attempting to win the Derby in his first start of the year.