When the Roman philosopher Seneca made his famous observation, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," he might have been anticipating the 2007 Kentucky Derby.
Street Sense won America's greatest race with an ideal trip on the rail at Churchill Downs; rarely has a Derby winner benefited from such a favorable scenario. Even so, it would be unfair to demean the performance with the adjective "lucky" because trainer Carl Nafzger had prepared the colt for an optimal performance and jockey Calvin Borel delivered the perfect tactical ride.
Ever since Street Sense won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall -- also with a perfect trip on the rail -- Nafzger managed the colt with a single goal: getting him into peak condition on the first Saturday in May. After Street Sense lost by a nose in the Blue Grass Stakes, three weeks before the Derby, Nafzger gave him a pair of sharp workouts at Churchill Downs that dazzled most of the clockers there. His months of planning produced the explosive effort he was looking for. After running ordinary Beyer Speed Figures of 102 and 93 in his two prep races, Street Sense earned a figure of 110 in the Derby -- just one point slower than Barbaro's smashing win last year.
Nafzger's methods and results were in sharp contrast to those of Todd Pletcher, whose dismal showing was one of the most fascinating aspects of the 133rd Derby. The nation's leading trainer has a stable of astounding size and strength; he had nominated 32 horses, almost all of them bluebloods, to the Triple Crown and ran five of them Saturday. They finished sixth, eighth, ninth, 18th and 20th, bringing the trainer's lifetime record in the Derby to 0 for 19 and in the Triple Crown to 0 for 26.
Pletcher is one of the modern devotees of sending horses into a race "fresh." He trains his horses lightly and gives them plenty of time between starts. One of his Derby entrants, Circular Quay, came into the race off an unprecedented eight-week absence from competition. Such tactics may work in most other situations, but they don't work in America's most stressful race, which demands that a horse be seasoned, fit and tough. Nafzger is a horseman from the old school, and he knew how to get Street Sense ready for the challenge.
As a confirmed come-from-behind runner in a field of 20, Street Sense had one asset and one liability. Large Derby fields usually produce a fast pace as jockeys hustle to get a good early position; the pace often takes a toll on the leaders and helps the stretch-runners. Even so, those stretch-runners have to make their way through a mass of horseflesh without getting blocked. Borel made it look easy.
The early pace developed as expected, with Hard Spun zipping the first half mile in 46.26 seconds. Borel loves to ride the rail, and after breaking from post No. 7 he immediately steered Street Sense to the fence. Amazingly, no other jockeys were staking out a position on the rail, and Street Sense was able to advance from 19th place to third without impediment. "It was pretty wide open," Borel said. "The horses were getting tired and were starting to drift away" from the rail.
Not only is the rail the shortest way around the track, but the inside part of the Churchill Downs track seemed to be advantageous Saturday -- just as it had when Street Sense won the Breeders' Cup there. After his ground-saving run, Borel angled past one tiring horse, took aim at Hard Spun, and beat him decisively.
His performance was so dominating that casual viewers of the Derby telecast might doubt that any of his rivals could stop Street Sense from sweeping the Triple Crown. But when stretch-runners benefit from a hot pace and a clean trip, they can look deceptively impressive. Fusaichi Pegasus was hailed as a superstar after his Derby rally in 2000 but proved a bust thereafter. Monarchos rallied to win the second-fastest Derby in history in 2001, but never won another race.
While everything was breaking perfectly for Street Sense on Saturday, the second- and third-place finishers ran well under less-than-ideal conditions. Hard Spun had to work hard to outrun other fast horses to get the lead. Stormello, Teuflesberg and Cowtown Cat were all pressing him, and the early fractions was so stressful that they wound up finishing 19th, 17th and 20th, respectively. Hard Spun alone survived the fast pace and managed to finish 5 3/4 lengths ahead of the other 18 horses.
Curlin distinguished himself, too. With only three career starts, he came into the race without the experience needed to win the Derby. (I had written that he would be "lucky to finish in the top 10.") He encountered some trouble in the run to the first turn that left him in mid-pack, and he had to negotiate heavy traffic for much of the race. His third-place finish stamped him as a colt with a bright future.
Both Hard Spun and Curlin are expected to challenge Street Sense in the Preakness. Perhaps they will force him to prove that he can win under conditions less ideal than those he encountered in the Derby.