05/27/2007 11:00PM

Still worth winning


The exciting Preakness stakes at Pimlico on May 19 gives cause to hope for a three-way rematch among Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Preakness winner Curlin, and the hard-hitting Hard Spun.

Logic, at least the logic of 2007, says it is not likely to play out that way.

Logic in contemporary racing says that trainer Carl Nafzger and owner James Tafel will sit back and watch the other two stars of the Triple Crown battle each other in the grueling 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes on June 9.

This has little to do with whether Street Sense is healthy, which he is; has little to do with that he could win the Belmont or lose the Belmont - the one race designed specifically to establish which horse is the best 3-year-old in the land.

It doesn't even have to do with the usual concern expressed by owners and trainers about the value of their top 3-year-old racehorses - the concern that the horse's stud value would plummet lacking a winning performance in the longest Triple Crown event. Street Sense's intrinsic value as a stallion is assured by his 2-year-old championship and his Kentucky Derby victory and reinforced by his gallant, heart-wrenching defeat in the Preakness.

Street Sense may have been a bit tired from his two terrific performances in the Derby and Preakness, but the same was true for Curlin and Hard Spun. Moreover, that is what the extra week built into the Triple Crown competition is for - to give each horse a little more time to get his energy back.

But, a bit tired or not, is there any doubt that Street Sense would be in the Belmont had he left Pimlico with two legs up on the elusive Triple Crown? Is there any doubt that Nafzger and Tafel would be salivating over the opportunity to make history with their fine 3-year-old?

Well, they still should be salivating, for history would be made by his appearance, because when the same horses have finished in the top three in the Derby and Preakness, all three have never carried their competition forward to the Belmont.

At the bottom line, it seems to me, that without an injury or a serious loss of body weight or any other negative sign that would suggest removing Street Sense from the Triple Crown, a very respected horse owner and trainer will be making a huge mistake if they back out of the logical, best, most competitive Triple Crown matchup the sport has seen since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer played out their remarkable three-race drama in 1989.

Street Sense might not win the Belmont, but he deserves the opportunity to show that he really is the best 3-year-old in the land while facing the two other top-rated 3-year-olds who are going to run in the "Test of the Champion."

Curlin might not win the Belmont - he has come a long way in a very short span of time and the rigors of the Triple Crown could catch up with him. The demanding 12-furlong distance of the Belmont has defeated many other top horses that went through the three-race series.

Hard Spun might not win the Belmont, but he might have a better chance than jockey Mario Pino gave him with a decidedly premature wide move into the teeth of a brisk pace in the Preakness. While Pino was competing on his home racetrack in Maryland, it was surprising to see him commit the most glaring error in this highly entertaining Triple Crown series.

Street Sense might win the Belmont because he has tremendous acceleration, can handle classic distances, and we have not yet seen the absolute best from this horse who has been expertly ridden and trained throughout his career.

Curlin might win the Preakness because his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby was a much stronger performance than many realized and his re-rally to edge Street Sense in the Preakness was a freakishly spectacular display of winning determination.

Hard Spun might win the Belmont because he is a large-bodied horse who should appreciate the softer turns at Belmont Park. It also may be possible that Hard Spun will be able to set or sit off a less-taxing pace while patient jockey Garrett Gomez doles out his abundant speed.

The rest of the Belmont field includes very few horses that seem capable of breaking up the top three's grip on the trifecta.

Tiago, seventh in the Derby with a good gallop-out, has trained well in California and probably is the most dangerous of the others expected to run.

Slew's Tizzy certainly has improved this spring, winning the Lexington Stakes and the Lone Star Derby as if he might have another forward move in him.

Imawildandcrazyguy finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and his grinding style gives him a remote chance to perform as well in the Belmont.

Circular Quay? Frankly, the pint-sized dynamo we saw in the Louisiana Derby seems out of his element against Street Sense, Curlin, and Hard Spun. But, I personally would find it interesting to see trainer Todd Pletcher try blinkers to help spark him into action wherever he chooses to run him next.

Chelokee and Nobiz Like Shobiz have all but been withdrawn from consideration by their respective trainers, who believe further development is needed before they realistically can compete at this level. Ditto for Sightseeing, second to Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Wood Memorial and a winner of the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 20. Sightseeing is projected to be ready for this level of competition at Saratoga.

The top-class filly Rags to Riches might add some pizzazz to a weakened Belmont should Street Sense be kept out of the race, but she will be hard pressed to avoid becoming Pletcher's 30th straight loser in a Triple Crown race.

More than another attempt to consummate a Triple Crown sweep, which has not occurred in 29 years, racing really needs truly great matchups involving recognizable, top-flight horses the public has come to admire. At the bottom line, should all three of the Derby-Preakness stars run in the Belmont, the world would be treated to the most popular three-horse matchup of the television age.

Modern, ultra-conservative logic notwithstanding, the calls to let a healthy Street Sense run in the Belmont are 100 percent on the money. Not only would his participation be the best thing for the game as it exists, it would be in the best interest of fans who never saw Kelso and Carry Back; Affirmed and Alydar; and Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. And it would even be best for Street Sense as he builds his legacy as a true Thoroughbred champion, a fighter defending his title on the stage he was meant to share with two thoroughly outstanding challengers.

Other late-season objectives should have no bearing on this decision. One never can predict the soundness, or the circumstances that lie ahead. The big game is on now. Nafzger and Tafel, both respected horsemen, should know that this special horse was bred to complete the Triple Crown series and that the opportunity never will be given to him again.