05/09/2007 12:00AM

Riding the rail to victory

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After Street Sense won the 133rd Kentucky Derby so convincingly on May 5, I know this much about what happened and what might happen in the Preakness at Pimlico on May 19.

Trainer Carl Nafzger, while in semi-retirement, earned a ton of support for the Hall of Fame at Saratoga with his second perfectly prepared victory in America's most famous and most difficult race.

In 1990, Nafzger's flawless handling of Unbridled was textbook material for traditional Derby-minded trainers, just as his sharp approach to this year's Derby will be a lesson for anyone seeking to win the race in the era of lightly raced horses who rarely stand up to rigorous training or racing schedules.

Jockey Calvin Borel, known affectionately by his peers as Calvin Bo-Rail, took the shortest distance possible for a good portion of the 10-furlong race, while nearly every one of his rival riders seemed to think the rail was a black hole. This despite the fact that many of these same riders reportedly labeled the rail "the best place to be" on the Churchill Downs racing surface throughout the day.

In other words, Borel, a solid journeyman jockey who earned his nickname by persistently choosing to race inside, was given wide clearance along the rail, much the same way Angel Cordero Jr. was given the right of way aboard Cannonade when he used an open rail path to win the centennial 1974 Derby when a record 23 horses clogged up the track.

Perhaps all the other jockeys in the 2007 Derby - except Mario Pino aboard runner-up Hard Spun and Julien Leparoux aboard fifth-place finisher Sedgefield - were suffering from some aversion to the rail. But they should have known that Borel was riding the colt who won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill by 10 lengths with a rail skimming ride and the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby using the same inside tactics. Ceding the rail to Borel and the perfectly trained Street Sense was incomprehensible from any strategic standpoint.

Hard Spun, who worked a sizzling five furlongs in 57.60 on Monday of Derby Week, went to the front as many expected, taking possession of the rail after putting away Teuflesberg and Stormello midway on the backstretch. But, only a few handicappers saw him as the main danger off that ultra quick workout. I for one expected the fast workout to doom this impressive colt to a bad fade somewhere near the mile marker.

That Hard Spun was able to open up on the Derby field turning into the stretch and was the only horse in the field other than Street Sense to turn in a Grade 1 performance, he deserves the rematch trainer Larry Jones is going to give him in the slightly shorter, 1 3/16-mile Preakness.

Lightly raced and previously unbeaten Curlin did rally mildly for third in a race that advanced his education. But Curlin never was in serious contention any more than Todd Pletcher's stretch-running Circular Quay, who was sixth after taking an adventurous, ineffective route between and around horses to the top of the stretch. Fact is, after the top two finished well clear of the field, the rest were nowhere, as only 2 1/2 lengths separated the third-place finisher Curlin and eighth-place finisher Any Given Saturday, also trained by the bedeviled Pletcher, whose five-horse contingent finished off the board. Circular Quay was sixth, Any Given Saturday eighth, Sam P. ninth, Scat Daddy 18th, and Cowtown Cat 20th.

Before the Derby, Pletcher explained that his approach was the result of heeding "lessons learned" from past Derby failures. The three-time Eclipse Award winner also stated that his best Derby training strategy is to rely upon the training techniques he has employed to win "any other race."

No sale.

This Derby was a spectacular failure for the trainer, who now has saddled 19 Derby losers and 26 without a victory in any Triple Crown race despite dominating major stakes racing in the past few years.

If anything, Pletcher's stoic approach is contradicted by the contrast between his remarkable winning history in prep races from coast to coast and his lack of success in the difficult Triple Crown events. Moreover, there is an eerie similarity between Pletcher's Derby failures and what happened with his mentor D. Wayne Lukas.

Lukas was victorious early in his career with Codex in the 1980 Preakness, but then suffered through 12 Derby defeats - many with favorites and highly regarded prep race winners - before he broke through with the filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby.

After that historic victory, Lukas went on a Triple Crown rampage, winning three more Derbies and eight other combined wins in the Preakness and Belmont to tie Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons's all-time record of 13 Triple Crown victories.

While setting new standards for stakes wins and money won, Pletcher has followed in Lukas's footsteps but has yet to admit that the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont stakes are not like other races on the calendar. Even in these shifting times for horse trainers, the uniqueness of the Kentucky Derby was demonstrated perfectly by Carl Nafzger. Nafzger's modern two-race prep program was combined with a pair of exceptional workouts at Churchill Downs by Street Sense that featured long gallop-outs at a good clip, each designed to get his high-class colt ready for a peak performance in the 1 1/4-mile classic on the first Saturday in May.

That accomplished and the Preakness next up on the calendar, there are many questions to be answered.

Does Street Sense have more energy in reserve? Can he come back in two weeks with another top effort? Will he be able to catch a stronger, more confident Hard Spun and also be ready to handle a more experienced Curlin?

What of the new shooters?

Will lightly raced and steadily improving Chelokee - excluded from the Derby due to his lack of graded stakes earnings - provide a storybook moment of triumph for the trainer who endured the heartbreak of Barbaro's tragic Preakness breakdown last year?

Can Pletcher redeem himself with longshot King of the Roxy, who was a good second in the Santa Anita Derby in his first try around two turns? Or will Lukas, in a return to Triple Crown competition, have the Derby Trial winner Flying First Class ready to spring an improbable upset or push Hard Spun into a very fast, contentious pace?

Digging deeper, most fans want to know if Street Sense can become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

From what we all saw on May 5, the smooth-moving Derby winner certainly deserves to be an odds-on favorite to succeed at Pimlico. But, things might get interesting if Borel is denied an easy trip along the coveted rail this time around. Should that be a realistic possibility after the post draw on Wednesday, May 16, the fast and fit Hard Spun might have a tactical edge worth serious money.

On the other hand, should Street Sense get through the Preakness with two legs up on the coveted Triple Crown, I would not bet against Carl Nafzger doing exactly what is needed to end the 29-year Triple Crown drought just as he ended the 23-year Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx while training Street Sense to the first Derby victory by a 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979.