05/08/2006 11:00PM

This time, Triple Crown hype is justified

Owner Roy Jackson raises the Derby trophy after Barbaro's win, as trainer Michael Matz (left) looks on.

WASHINGTON - Whenever a horse captures the Kentucky Derby with authority, the hype invariably begins: The winner is a superhorse. He's going to sweep the Triple Crown. Although the racing world wants desperately to see a bright new star, high hopes for Derby winners are almost always dashed. No horse has managed to sweep the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and no winner of the Derby has gone on to become an acclaimed superhorse since Spectacular Bid in 1979.

But in the wake of Barbaro's 6 1/2-length runaway in Saturday's Derby, superlatives are fully justified. Maybe it is premature to use the "S" word for the undefeated colt, but barring some unlucky development, he is going to win the Triple Crown.

Impressive-looking Derby victories are often deceptive, because the early pace of the race can benefit certain horses and make them look better than they are. When the pace is exceptionally fast, all of the horses near the lead usually collapse, enabling a horse to rally from far behind - such as the overhyped Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Monarchos in 2001.

Barbaro's win, however, was even better than it looked because he overcame the pace of the 132nd Derby. The 20-horse field was filled with speed horses, leading many handicappers to assume that the early fractions would be fast and that the winner would rally from the back of the pack.

The Derby unfolded according to the script as Keyed Entry and Sinister Minister dueled through a quarter-mile in 22.63 seconds and a half-mile in 46.07. The exertion took its predictable toll: The two pacesetters wound up finishing 20th and 16th, respectively. Barbaro was only three lengths behind the leaders as they reached the first turn. Ordinarily, such proximity to a fast pace dooms a horse in the Derby. But for Barbaro, this wasn't a taxing pace; it was merely his cruising speed. He withstood the strain of chasing Keyed Entry and Sinister Minister and still had enough energy left to accelerate powerfully in the stretch.

The final quarter-mile of this year's Derby, 24.34 seconds, was the fastest since 1973 - the year of Secretariat. Barbaro's final time was an excellent 2:01.36, which translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 111. He looked as if he were capable of running much faster, if necessary.

Barbaro possesses a combination of speed and stamina that is rare in contemporary American Thoroughbreds. It is a combination that has been missing in most of the horses who have pursued the Triple Crown in recent years. Smarty Jones (2004), Funny Cide (2003), and War Emblem (2002) all won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but they were the sons of sprinters, and their shortcomings caught up with them in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Other Derby and Preakness winners failed in the Belmont because they were off-the-pace runners lacking the tactical speed that is vital in the Belmont.

But Barbaro has the whole package. He is fast enough to run with fast sprinters. Yet he possesses a strong finishing kick and a pedigree that suggests he will be even more effective at longer distances. His sire, Dynaformer, is one of America's leading sires of distance runners.

What is most extraordinary about Barbaro is the fact that he may be better on grass than on dirt. Because his pedigree is turf-oriented and trainer Michael Matz is turf-oriented, too, the colt made the first three starts of his career on grass and won them all. He finished so explosively in the Laurel Futurity last fall that he looked like the best young American turf runner in years. It is extraordinary for horses to excel on both surfaces. The last American horse who was a champion on dirt and turf was John Henry in the early 1980's. And before him there was Secretariat in 1973.

His versatility gives Barbaro the potential to attempt feats unprecedented in the sport. Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson were asked at Churchill Downs if they would consider running their colt in the Epsom Derby or some other major European race. Roy Jackson joked, "Gretchen and D.D. Matz [Michael Matz's wife] would love to go to the Arc de Triomphe because they want to go shopping in Paris."

In fact, that is a realistic goal, an exciting goal; no American-based horse has ever won a European flat race of such magnitude as the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. And the Jacksons, who turned down a $5 million offer for their colt after the Laurel Futurity, are sporting enough to try it.

For Barbaro, the Triple Crown may be just the beginning of an adventuresome career.

(c) 2006, The Washington Post