06/04/2007 12:00AM

Why Curlin won't win


Quick, which colt overhauled the free-running Smarty Jones in the stretch of the 2004 Belmont Stakes?

If handicappers cannot recall, that's the point.

Anonymous marathoners loom dangerous in the Belmont, a unique classic beyond the scope of the great majority of American colts. The marathon distance serves sufficiently as the explanation why Curlin should not win, although additional reasons come to mind, as well as why a sleeper such as the even-paced Tiago might.

A couple of flashbacks shed the necessary light. Sunday Silence may have edged Easy Goer in three of their four titanic clashes, but he could offer no resistance in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes. As it did not at 1 1/4 miles, Easy Goer's combination of speed and stamina proved tremendous at 1 1/2 miles. Sunday Silence's combination of speed and stamina was not nearly as impressive as it had been earlier.

The greatest horse that Bill Shoemaker ever sat upon, as Shoemaker himself testified, and trainer Buddy Delp's version of the greatest horse that ever looked through a bridle never won at a 1 1/2 miles. If Spectacular Bid could not win the Triple Crown, or defeat the 4-year-old Affirmed at the distance later that fall, who wants to bet that Curlin will dominate at 3-5?

The same simple explanation may deny the classic to Hard Spun, too. He finished the final quarter of the Kentucky Derby in 25.58 seconds, and notwithstanding the overrated run on the front to the mile call (1:11.13 and 1:37.04), his finishing fraction is not especially encouraging for the New York marathon. If handicappers agree that Street Sense, Curlin, and Hard Spun deserve to be recognized as leading colts, it does not follow necessarily than one of the three should win the Belmont Stakes.

In the Preakness, Hard Spun moved too hurriedly into a fast six-furlong pace of 1:09.80, and he completed the fraction between four furlongs and six furlongs in 23.00. But he completed the final 3 1/2 furlongs in a sluggish 45.36 (42.00 would represent the standard 12 seconds a furlong), which does not translate readily to drawing off in the Belmont Stakes. Worse, Hard Spun had been nudged from the lead by Street Sense and Curlin prior to the eighth pole.

Pace analysts that imagine Hard Spun can slow the pace of the Belmont Stakes, pull away on the final turn, and not be caught, are trapped in the web of conventional wisdom. They might remind themselves instead that in Grade 1 races at the classic distances, class laughs at pace. Trip handicappers persuaded that Mario Pino moved too soon and Garrett Gomez will not will have missed the point. The reason horses go wire to wire following slow fractions at the occasional 1 1/2 miles is not so much a function of pace, but rather that the horses behind are themselves not classic runners, and most of them are not very talented either. Top-class horses would sail by regardless of the fractions.

That intriguing thought anticipates the possibility that Todd Pletcher will choose to run the marvelous filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont classic. The daughter of A.P. Indy is bred to get the classic distances generously, and she is extraordinarily talented, an obvious point. Following a pace that has been fast, normal, or slow, Rags to Riches can be imagined circling the front flight and passing Hard Spun, thereby controlling the front into the final furlong. The filly is the classier horse. From there, Rags to Riches should be expected to run straight and hard. As Pletcher asserted following the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, "She is truly a superstar."

Will Curlin catch her, or defeat any other colt that threatens?

I think not. If Curlin has taken the lead into the stretch, he will be vulnerable to the anonymous late-runner, even as was Smarty Jones, and in the same grinding fashion that Curlin startled Street Sense. Santa Anita Derby hero Tiago will be coming along in his one-paced manner. To be sure, the Santa Anita Derby was as slow as they go there. No one should confuse Tiago with a division leader, but neither was the anonymous colt coming alongside Smarty Jones in the final sixteenth. Birdstone's owner, Mary Lou Whitney, felt the need to apologize to the silenced and disheartened throng.

The case against Curlin can be more compelling than the prerace discourse will admit. The colt has run only five times, all of the races crowded into the interval since the maiden debut of Feb. 3. The first three were easy enough, but the final two were exhausting, which is enough to provoke a reversal of form. Curlin won the Preakness gamely, but all out, overextended, and he was hard-used throughout after stumbling at the start. The colt did not take the final turn without bearing out, and he coursed through the stretch on the wrong lead.

If jockey Robbie Albarado had not shifted his weight repeatedly and cleverly to force his colt to switch leads, Curlin would not have prevailed. The post-race commentary would have focused on his liabilities instead of his assets. Needless to say, if the troubled trip is repeated, even in part, the Belmont distance will wreak its ultimate havoc.

There also remains the crucial distinction between the Preakness and the other two legs. The Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes occur across the classic distances, as the Preakness does not. It is not too fine a distinction. Not many care anymore, and many will scoff, but pedigree analysts should not ignore the dosage indexes of the contenders:

Curlin 4.00

Hard Spun 1.40

Tiago 1.91

Slew's Tizzy 2.00

Rags to Riches3.00

Curlin has an extended pedigree unbalanced 4 to 1 toward speed. It does not spell defeat by any means, but should be a concern, and a relaxed manner and perfect trip in the Belmont will be greatly preferred.

Beyond Albarado, the counterpoints in Curlin's defense are three, and seriously positive. The willingness and determination no one knew the colt possessed prior to the Kentucky Derby have been amply on exhibit in the first two legs. Second, provided the fabulous filly does not start, the opposition beyond Hard Spun looks as weak as water. Third, and his most convincing credential, Curlin completed the final 3 1/2 furlongs of the Preakness in 42.30 seconds, a powerful late kick. Street Sense finished faster in a remarkable 41.70, faster than 12 seconds a furlong, and nonetheless lost his chance for the first Triple Crown in 29 years.

If Curlin is not as overextended as he might be in the final quarter-mile, the colt may prove much the best after all, and the anonymous one-paced Belmont closer will not matter beyond completing the exotics. Still, there is the overarching presence of the 3-5 odds, a circumstance that warrants respect, but also a capitulation to the negative thinking.

As to the good news, despite the 1-5 Chelokee to begin, the pick four ending at the Preakness included three non-favorites, none above 6-1, and paid 220-1. A four-figure score was readily available.

The undercard on the Belmont program will be wonderful, of course, and favorites will be hard-pressed to succeed in the competitive stakes prior to the classic event. If Curlin should disappoint his backers as Street Sense did, the 2007 Triple Crown will have passed without having revealed the division leader or a near-champion perhaps, but the pick four payoff should prove memorable to a number of handicappers in the grandstand, at the OTBs, and at home.