A Headfirst Victory

curlin - street sense - preakness stakes
Stride after stride, from the sixteenth pole, Curlin, front, and Street Sense traded the lead, and when they hit the Pimlico finish line together, Curlin put his head in front when it counted most. (J. David Ake - AP)
By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 20, 2007

BALTIMORE, May 19 -- In the end on Saturday, it was just two riders from Cajun country in Louisiana barreling down the stretch in the 132nd Preakness Stakes. Calvin Borel threaded Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense between leaders Hard Spun, C P West and Curlin at mid-stretch and looked on his way to Belmont Park for a chance at the Triple Crown. But Robby Albarado put his whip down on Curlin's right side and asked his horse for everything he had.

Stride after stride, from the sixteenth pole, the two traded the lead, and when they hit the Pimlico finish line together, Curlin put his head in front when it counted most.

The race was every bit as thrilling as Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, predicted throughout the week -- only it didn't turn out as he had hoped. The top three finishers from the Kentucky Derby returned to battle in the Preakness and once again were better than the rest, only this time in a different order.

"Heartbreaking, that's what it was," Nafzger said. "We only needed a nose. Curlin ran a hell of a race, but we had Curlin. We should have never let him come back and get us. He beat us at the wire, and that's where they take the picture."

Curlin won the 1 3/16 -mile race in 1 minute 53.46 seconds, equaling the Preakness record, before a record crowd of 121,263. Street Sense finished four lengths in front of Hard Spun.

"It was a tremendous horse race," Albarado said. "I thought I had a different horse at the first part of the race and a different horse in the last part. He started out like a 2-year-old and finished like a 5-year-old."

The day couldn't have been any more dramatic for Albarado, 33, of Lafayette, La., who won the first Triple Crown race of his career.

Two races before the Preakness, he fell off his mount, Einstein, in the Dixie turf stakes after stumbling over a fallen horse in front of him. The fallen horse, Mending Fences, suffered a broken ankle and was euthanized on the track.

Albarado walked away uninjured from the accident, but when the gate opened for the Preakness, he almost had another mishap.

Curlin stumbled briefly before Albarado righted him and worked hard to get involved in the race. Asked if his heart sank when he saw Curlin's front knees buckle at the start, winning trainer Steve Asmussen said, "Probably a little bit more than a little."

When the gate opened, Xchanger, based at the Fair Hill Training Center, made a surprising move to the lead and dueled with Flying First Class into the first turn, running the first quarter mile in 22.83 seconds.

After his stumble, Curlin was urged into action, and he ran in tandem with long shot Mint Slewlep well off the rail on the first turn. On the backstretch, Albarado began to move slowly into contention. Street Sense, meantime, lagged well back early with Circular Quay, but he also started to pass horses three-quarters of a mile into the race.

Up front, Hard Spun, ridden by Mario Pino, the all-time leading jockey in Maryland, moved perhaps prematurely, seizing the lead from the tiring front-runners heading into the far turn. C P West, trained by Nick Zito, had raced up close in fourth place and attacked Hard Spun on the far turn. Pino asked his mount to go and they briefly spurted away, but not far enough.

Curlin came charging and caught C P West on the outside, but in a flash Street Sense was between them. C P West could not keep up, but Curlin fought back and he and the Derby winner fought to the finish.

Borel, who grew up in St. Martin Parish, La., turned to Albarado just as they crossed the finish line and told his rival, "You got me," Albarado said.

"I had no idea where [Street Sense] was, but I thought he'd be coming," Albarado said. "Street Sense flew right on by me, but I got [Curlin] off his left lead and went and got him."

"I thought it was all over when I got by Hard Spun turning for home," Borel said. "I thought he was just going to gallop, but things happen. He just got to gawking 40 yards from home and he just got outrun."

By winning the Preakness, Curlin validated his enormous promise as well as his cost. The chestnut son of the Kentucky stallion Smart Strike cost $57,000 at a yearling auction in September 2005. After he broke his maiden by 12 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park in February, a syndicate of Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables and George Bolton of Baltimore pooled together $3.5 million and bought a controlling interest from Midnight Cry Stable.

The horse was transferred from trainer Helen Pitts and handed to Asmussen, who put Curlin on an accelerated path to the Kentucky Derby.

Curlin was sent to Arkansas, where he won the Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths and the Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 . No horse since Apollo in 1882 had won the Kentucky Derby without running as a 2-year-old, but Asmussen and the owners considered Curlin something special.

After a troubled journey, he wound up third at Churchill Downs. Hardly discouraged, the team forged ahead to Pimlico. Asmussen missed the Preakness post position draw on Wednesday while attending his grandmother's funeral, but his horse was ready.

"Every day this horse has run has been something like this," Asmussen said. "This is the norm for him."

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