05/17/2006 11:00PM

As they'll tell you, even sure things fall short

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BALTIMORE - The Triple Crown talk already has begun, predictable in light of an unbeaten Derby champion coming into the Preakness as a heavy favorite. Since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, there has been much talk about the end of the Triple Crown drought - but disappointment inevitably has ensued, whether at Pimlico on the third Saturday in May or three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes in New York.

This time, trainer Michael Matz and Barbaro are the focus of such talk. An unbeaten Derby winner has raced three times in Preakness history, winning every time, and the odds-on status that awaits Barbaro strongly suggests he will make it 4 for 4 on Saturday. Those previous dual winners were Majestic Prince in 1969, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Smarty Jones in 2004. Of those, only Seattle Slew went on to complete the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont.

Several trainers who have brought a Derby winner to Pimlico as a huge Preakness favorite - Bud Delp with Spectacular Bid (1-10 in 1979), Neil Drysdale with Fusaichi Pegasus (3-10 in 2000), and John Servis with Smarty Jones (7-10) - not only will be watching Saturday with great interest, but also with vivid memories of their Preakness experience. All three said they believe Barbaro stands an excellent chance to win the Preakness, but they also warned that the Triple Crown trail can have unfortunate surprises in store.

"Even before the Derby, I didn't think there was any chance I could lose the Triple Crown," said Delp. "I thought only an act of God could get us beat."

Delp said the infamous safety pin saga - Spectacular Bid stepped on a pin on Belmont morning, which Delp later cited as critical in the outcome - and a questionable ride by jockey Ronnie Franklin cost Spectacular Bid the Belmont and a place in the Triple Crown's pantheon. Delp said he still believes any talk about a Triple Crown for Spectacular Bid before the Preakness was justified, just as he feels racing fans have a right to talk about one for Barbaro.

"He's the real deal, this one," he said. "If he runs his race in the Preakness, I just can't see him losing. And if he gets this one, put a ring around him in the Belmont. I think he'll be the first Triple Crown winner in many a year."

Servis said Barbaro's race in the Derby "was as good as any I've seen in a long time."

"I think he has a big chance Saturday and to go on to win the Triple Crown," Servis said. "It seems like he's training real well for Michael. As a matter of fact, if I was Michael, I'd be very excited right now - just like I was two years ago."

Unlike Delp and Servis, Drysdale did not have a good Preakness experience, as his path to Triple Crown glory ended on a cold and rainy day in Baltimore. Fusaichi Pegasus tied Riva Ridge (1972) as the lowest-priced losing favorite in Preakness history when he finished second by 3 3/4 lengths to Red Bullet.

"Fusaichi Pegasus was a long-striding horse, and he just didn't handle the mud that day," Drysdale said.

Drysdale said Barbaro was "very impressive in the Derby" and that he believes the colt stands a "very good chance" to win the next two legs of the Triple Crown. However, an eerily similar sentiment surrounded Fusaichi Pegasus going into the Preakness, and Drysdale is not about to go any farther out on a limb.

"Let's just say I wish the Barbaro people all the best," he said.

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