Street Sense just didn't put Curlin away

Among horse racing circles, the Preakness was barely declared "official" before the debate began.

Did Curlin win because of determination and will to win? Or did Street Sense lose his chance at Triple Crown immortality because of a lack of killer instinct?

The answer is likely a little of both -- and probably more of the latter than the former.

Even before the Kentucky Derby, trainer Carl Nafzger warned that Street Sense tended to "lose focus" if he made the lead too soon in the stretch. Many dismissed that notion as gibberish, since Street Sense pulled away to a record 10-length victory margin in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Nafzger was referring to last October's Lanes End Breeders' Futurity, where Street Sense stormed to the front at the quarter-pole only to be passed by two horses in the last furlong. However, that outcome was widely considered a product of Keeneland's quirky version of the synthetic Polytrack surface, which often rewards the latest possible rally.

After the Preakness, it now appears Nafzger knew his horse better than anyone.

Of course, when jockey Calvin Borel timed his Preakness move in approximately the same manner as the Derby and Steet Sense caught Curlin at the three-sixteenths pole, Nafzger didn't seem to be worried. Nafzger grinned broadly and elbowed owner Jim Tafel, confidently telling him, "We're home, baby, we're home."

Everyone watching the race had to feel the same way as Street Sense moved to a length-and-a-half lead two poles from the wire. Curlin offered only token resistance although his jockey, Robby Albarado, had been urging him from the top of the stretch in anticipation of Street Sense's trademark surge.

Then Borel said Street Sense "went to gawking on me" -- racetrack parlance for a horse more attuned to his surroundings than his competition.

And in seconds, Nafzger's smile was replaced by a look of consternation.

At the dramatic finish, a shocked Nafzger immediately told Tafel, "I think we got nipped."

Handicappers who watch multitudes of races know the signs: Street Sense clearly seemed to ease up once he ran past his opposition.

But great horses have both talent and focus, and Curlin never capitulated even after being overpowered by Street Sense in midstretch. Curlin was running in only his fifth career race, but at the end of the Preakness, he was the more professional racehorse of the two. It also should be noted that Curlin and Street Sense earned Beyer Speed Figures of 111 for the Preakness -- demonstrating that Street Sense maintained his Derby form, and, as rival trainers Nafzger and Todd Pletcher had predicted, Curlin elevated his game to new heights.

Just a peek
In the closing yards of the Preakness, Calvin Borel frantically glanced over his right shoulder to check the progress of the oncoming Curlin.

Some have suggested that head swivel might have cost Street Sense the race.

Borel may have looked panicky, but rest assured that the only head that mattered in the Preakness outcome was the one Curlin got down first.

Racing fans frequently overestimate the importance of a jockey's body language during the heat of a race. For example, if a horse wins a race by five lengths under a hand ride, many conclude the horse might have won by 10 lengths if the jockey had been using the whip. However, when a horse wins by a large margin it usually is running as fast as it can, and whipping from the jockey will not help and can even be counterproductive.

As Street Sense approached the Preakness finish, Borel was hardly overconfident, and furiously applied a left-handed whip in hopes of rekindling a competitive response. But with Street Sense apparently convinced his job was done, Borel could have been flossing his teeth in the saddle for all the difference he made.

In the waning yards, the problem was what was going on in Street Sense's head, not Borel's.

Still classic Borel
In reality, Borel put up another sensational ride in the Preakness.

Street Sense and Curlin both raced in the two-path around the first turn. But Albarado moved Curlin to the outside down the backstretch while Borel remained closer to the rail, ignoring pre-race warnings by other trainers and jockeys that Borel would be wearing a target and would never be permitted another inside run like he got in the Breeders' Cup and Kentucky Derby.

Curlin lost ground four-wide on the second turn as Borel expertly guided Street Sense inside, around and between horses, hitting every opening without a split-second of hesitation.

By the time Borel moved Street Sense to the lead in midstretch, the veteran jockey had done his part as in the Derby, successfully charting a course at least two lengths shorter than that taken by Curlin. If Street Sense had kept running his hardest to the wire, Borel would have been hailed far and wide for once again pulling down the pants of his competitors. That wasn't to be.

Sunday morning quarterbacks might wonder why Borel didn't wait a bit longer before launching his rally. But if a strategy worked to perfection in the Kentucky Derby, why abandon it for the Preakness?

Put it to rest
If Curlin and Street Sense stay healthy, racing fans could be in store for a fascinating rivalry as the year plays out.

Street Sense's stretch lapse shows that he is still mentally immature, and Curlin also has room to improve.

As the field straightened for the stretch run, Curlin ducked slightly to the outside -- something he did much more dramatically in his career debut at Gulfstream. Given the frantic pace of the Preakness, Curlin's slight stumble at the start probably helped him more than it hurt him. But NBC analyst Gary Stevens also pointed out that Albarado was forced to ride more aggressively earlier in the race because Curlin had his own focus issues and was running in spurts.

Albarado seemed to sense this immediately after the victory, although his explanation was that Curlin "didn't negotiate the sharp turns here too well."

Street Sense had no such problem with the turns, probably because -- apologies for the repetition -- the turns at Pimlico are no tighter than those at Churchill Downs. Are we going to have to hire a survey crew to bury this irritating myth once and for all?