05/29/2007 11:00PM

Triple Crown requires an open mind


PHILADELPHIA - With the final test still a week away, it is not too early to review what has been learned in that annual three-part exam that takes us on a whirlwind trip from Kentucky through Maryland to New York.

The races are over in just 35 days. It is those months before the races where we form opinions. If you don't learn each year, you are probably never going to get this right.

Without reviewing the gory details, I was pretty much Triple Crown clueless during the entire decade of the 1990s. I reviewed what went wrong (just about everything) and learned from most of my mistakes.

The biggest mistake was forming opinions too early and refusing to deviate. The second biggest mistake was having bad early opinions.

Without reviewing the far more pleasing details, I have been pretty much on the Triple Crown this decade. I even formed two early opinions that turned out to be correct - Point Given and Barbaro. That Point Given did not win the Kentucky Derby is still a bit of a mystery, even though the big colt probably was too close to the crazy-hot pace. The opinion was correct. It just wasn't correct on Derby Day.

This is about much more than the past performances. This is very much about reading how trainers read their horses, knowing who to believe and who to ignore. (Hint: D. Wayne Lukas can be ignored unless you detect any lack of confidence. Then, you can toss his horse with total confidence.)

If you can't see how a horse is training or don't know how to interpret what you see if you do see it, find somebody whose opinion you respect that has watched most of the horses train. And listen to him very closely. This matters.

I used to think it did not matter. I was dead wrong.

I remember 1989 when just about everybody said Western Playboy was training badly the week of the Derby. Andrew Beyer listened and, in a classic Beyer moment, as everybody else was focused on the finish line as Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer, Beyer was looking at the back to see if Faultless Ensign could pass Western Playboy in the stretch for 14th. The right horse got there by a neck, and Beyer cashed on his Western Playboy for last bet.

Smarty Jones, Barbaro, and Street Sense were training best of any of the contenders the year each won the Derby. This was not an opinion shared by a few people. This was a consensus by some of the sharpest people in the sport. These are not people who just look at horses the week of the Derby. This is what they do. Their opinions really do matter.

I have only been sent the wrong way once. I wasn't as concerned by the speed of Hard Spun's pre-Derby workout as I was by the fact that everybody seemed to think the colt was laboring at the end of it. Combined with the fact that I already felt Hard Spun was more hype than performance, I had no trouble tossing the colt, even though I did think there was a reasonable chance he could clear the field.

Turned out Hard Spun is way better than I thought. Or got better at exactly the right time. Either way, I got it wrong. This is a very talented colt. The fast work was about showing Hard Spun was in great form. Even those who were watching the work missed on that one.

Once the Derby has been run, the most important handicapping principle is the Derby. When I looked at this year's tape, I kept coming back to Curlin. I did not care about his margin of defeat. I couldn't believe the colt finished third. Given his level of experience and the adventures he encountered, I really thought Curlin should have finished 13th. That he kept trying confirmed how much talent he had. So I picked him in the Preakness and got lucky.

Street Sense ran just like I thought he would run - great. He won the turn race again, but Curlin won the straightaway, sort of like a rerun of Sunday Silence-Easy Goer in the roles of Street Sense and Curlin, respectively.

As Sunday Silence proved, all other things being equal, you take the horse that figures to get first run because of his turn ability. Curlin's Preakness win proved to be the exception to the rule.

I don't think it was a coincidence that Easy Goer's only win among the four meetings with Sunday Silence was at Belmont Park with its sweeping turns.

When you hear that a top-class horse, with proven form, has one of the greatest works a veteran clocker has ever seen, this is information that you just can't ignore. That was the word on Street Sense during Derby Week.

Frankly, I wasn't certain of Street Sense on the past performances, still wondering if that Breeders' Cup win wasn't partially due to the live rail that day. Obviously, the proof was in the Derby. And the Preakness.

To review, once you have done the fundamentals, keep an open mind and be prepared to call an audible. In the end, you often have to weigh an old opinion in the context of new information before you make your selection. Then, you watch while thinking ahead to what is next.