05/04/2007 11:00PM

Twenty at the start, one at the end

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Street Sense, the BC Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champ, has proven form.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Todd Pletcher has five horses. Steve Asmussen, Bill Kaplan, Darrin Miller, and Doug O'Neill each have two. But all anyone will want to know about the 133rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs is who will be the one.

A full field of 20 is entered in the Derby, and handicappers will find it a truly challenging race. There are horses with proven form - such as 2-year-old champion Street Sense, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner - and a horse whose brilliance may overcome his lack of experience, the unbeaten Curlin. Three horses - Nobiz Like Shobiz, Street Sense, and Tiago - are trained by gentlemen who already have stood in the Derby winner's circle. Eight - Dominican, Great Hunter, Hard Spun, Imawildandcrazyguy, Liquidity, Sedgefield, Storm in May, and Teuflesberg - are in the hands of trainers who have never run in the Derby.

Many of the leading contenders have some history going against them. Curlin, the Arkansas Derby winner, is trying to become the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby without racing at age 2, and the first since 1915 to win the race with three starts or fewer. Street Sense is trying to become the first winner of the Juvenile to capture the Derby, and the first 2-year-old champ to win the Derby since 1979. Street Sense is also trying to become the first horse to win the Derby with two starts or fewer at age 3 since Sunny's Halo in 1983, a streak that Circular Quay, Great Hunter, and Stormello will also try to break.

When Barbaro won last year's Derby, he became the first horse in 50 years to win the race off a layoff of five weeks or more. This year, Imawildandcrazyguy, Scat Daddy, and Stormello are coming in off five-week layoffs, Hard Spun has not run in six weeks, and Circular Quay has not run in eight weeks.

Compounding factors are that Dominican, Great Hunter, Street Sense, Teuflesberg, and Zanjero each made his last start on the synthetic surface Polytrack, and Sedgefield has never raced on dirt, the surface at Churchill Downs.

All of them will be trying 1 1/4 miles for the first time.

And there is the possibility that the Derby could be run on an off track. A steady, soaking rain was hovering in the area on Thursday morning, and according to the Weather Channel, occasional thunderstorms were forecast from Thursday through Saturday. There is a 30 percent chance of rain on Saturday, with a high temperature of 79 degrees.

The Derby is the 10th race on a 12-race card that begins at 11 a.m. Eastern. The listed post time for the Derby is 6:04 p.m. The race will be seen live on NBC on a two-hour telecast beginning at 4:30 p.m. A crowd of more than 150,000 is expected at Churchill Downs, including Queen Elizabeth II of England.

If all 20 start in the Derby, the gross purse will be $2,210,000, with $1,450,000 to the winner.

Curlin and Street Sense figure to vie for favoritism. Mike Battaglia, the linemaker at Churchill Downs, has Curlin a slight favorite on his morning line. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, made Street Sense the favorite.

Curlin is the least experienced horse in the race. Asmussen, his trainer, is hoping talent trumps experience.

"This is what makes the Derby the Derby - it's his only chance," Asmussen said. "I do not believe the three races or not running as a 2-year-old will be any excuse."

Asmussen also sends out Zanjero, third in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Street Sense was a 10-length winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile six months ago at Churchill Downs, where he is based with Carl Nafzger, who trained 1990 Derby winner Unbridled. Nafzger for years has shown the ability to bring a horse to a peak performance on a big day following a below-par final prep. So even though Street Sense was defeated last time out in the Blue Grass, his subsequent brilliant works here are a tipoff that he will be a formidable foe.

Nafzger is confident.

"Just show me daylight," he said this week, "and I'll rest my case."

Nobiz Like Shobiz, the Wood Memorial winner, and Tiago, the Santa Anita Derby winner, are the other horses whose trainers have won the Derby. Barclay Tagg, the trainer of Nobiz Like Shobiz, did it in 2003 with Funny Cide. John Shirreffs, the trainer of Tiago, did it with Tiago's half-brother Giacomo in 2005.

Nobiz Like Shobiz added blinkers for the Wood, and Tagg stuffed cotton in his ears to limit distractions. Asked if he was worried about the over-the-top atmosphere of the Derby getting to Nobiz Like Shobiz, Tagg said, "I just worry if he can go a mile and a quarter."

"He seems like the right type of horse to do it, but that extra eighth of a mile stops a lot of them," Tagg said.

If Tiago wins, his dam, Set Them Free, will become the first dam to produce two Derby winners.

Pletcher, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer three years running, has five chances to win his first Derby; he has been second twice in the last six years. His five starters - Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Sam P., and Scat Daddy - equal a Derby record held by D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito.

"I really believe these horses are all going to run a good race," Pletcher said. "If that's good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, that's the question we're going to find out."

O'Neill sends out Great Hunter, third in last year's Juvenile to Street Sense, and Liquidity. Kaplan, who trains just eight horses at Calder, has two longshots, Imawildandcrazyguy and Storm in May. Miller has Dominican, the Blue Grass winner, and the longshot Sedgefield.

The race's early action may come from the middle of the gate, with Hard Spun in post 8 and Teuflesberg in post 10. Hard Spun smoked through a five-furlong workout in 57.60 seconds on Monday.

"I know what they're saying - the cowboy blew it," said Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones. "All that's left," he said, joking, "is to put the Band-Aids on and try to get him there."

Jamie Sanders, who trains and co-owns Teuflesberg, is seeking to become the first woman to train a Derby winner. Teuflesberg likes to race near the lead, but he is a notoriously bad gate horse. How he breaks could affect the pace, as well as the chances of those alongside him, Bwana Bull and Liquidity.

At that point, when the gate opens, the focus will be on all 20 runners. Two minutes later, it will be down to one. The one who wears the roses.

- additional reporting by David Grening