01/24/2008 12:00AM

What if Street Sense won Preakness?


NEW YORK - The first race replay shown at the Eclipse Awards on Monday night was last year's Belmont Stakes, which fans had overwhelmingly and understandably voted as the "2007 Moment of the Year" - the first victory by a filly in the Belmont in 102 years, and a photo finish between the top two finishers in the Horse of the Year voting.

As dramatic and historic a moment as it was, the Belmont wasn't really the pivotal race of the 2007 season. Rags to Riches beat Curlin, but seven months later Curlin outpolled her for the top Eclipse by a lopsided tally of 249 to 12. The race and the moment that changed everything came three weeks earlier in the Preakness, when an apparently left-for-dead Curlin launched an improbable rally to nail Street Sense at the wire.

The video footage of trainer Carl Nafzger's face during that stretch run will not receive as many fond replays as the famous shots of him 17 years earlier narrating Unbridled's winning Derby stretch run for Frances Genter, but it's just as compelling - the nightmare counterpoint to that beloved clip. When a powerful stretch-runner like Street Sense makes a winning move to blow past the field at the top of the stretch, usually the only question is whether he will win by five or by 10 lengths. Nafzger, like everyone who bet or was rooting for Street Sense, thought it was over. Instead, Curlin gathered force for an even later and stronger move, and changed the course of racing history by inches.

Imagine how different everything might have been had Street Sense held on and won that Preakness photo. He would have gone on to the Belmont as a heavy favorite to become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 29 years, and who's to say he wouldn't have done it? He wouldn't have had to face Rags to Riches, who trainer Todd Pletcher said was not going to run in the race if both Street Sense and Curlin were in the field. Even had he failed in the Belmont, the rest of Street Sense's campaign would have been different, with a longer summer break instead of two races at Saratoga, and maybe a different fall.

Instead, despite victories in the Derby and Travers, Street Sense finished a distant third in the Horse of the Year balloting with a single first-place vote, and the only year-end honorary hardware that accrued to his camp was a well-deserved Big Sport of Turfdom Award for Nafzger from the Turf Publicists of America a few hours before the Eclipse dinner.

Nafzger was honored with the Big Sport not as a consolation prize but for his ongoing graciousness in both victory and defeat throughout the year. His quick "Why bother?" right after the Preakness when asked about running in the Belmont was a rare flash of frustration that rubbed a few people the wrong way, but it was over in a flash and he spent the rest of the year accommodating every request to sit still for interviews and help promote upcoming races. He never made excuses for Street Sense's defeats even when he had every right to. Whether or not Curlin was the better horse, clearly Street Sense did not fire his best shot on the sloppy track in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where a fourth-place finish ended his career and chances for immortality on a sour note.

If he's still brooding about the Preakness and the Classic, he's doing a great job of hiding it. At Monday's lunch, Nafzger was full of warmth for the game and the horse. He joined Laffit Pincay Jr. as only the second person to receive the Big Sport award twice and seemed almost embarrassed by the honor.

"It's the horses who take you a long ways," he said. "You shouldn't get awards for things you enjoy doing."

He continues to train a small string of horses based at Palm Meadows this winter, having turned over the bulk of his operation to his longtime assistant, Ian Wilkes. He also continues to speak out about issues in the game that dismay him, and a discussion of changes in race conditions at various tracks got him going.

"One thing that's changing and not for the better is how they write condition books nowadays," he said before getting up to receive his award. "When you had guys like Tommy Trotter and Kenny Noe writing the races, they understood that you need to bring a horse along in steps, let him develop. Now, you break your maiden, they want you to go right into a stakes. No one wants to let a horse develop."

A few minutes later, at the podium, he reiterated his core philosophy of training.

"Do right by your horses," he said, "and they'll do right by you."