Bob Ford | A need for speed: In the end, the race was won by the best horse.

Posted: May 06, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Several things that have not happened before, and a few that happen only rarely, came to pass in the 133d running of the Kentucky Derby yesterday, but in the end the most logical outcome of all carried the day - the best horse won.

Street Sense, the winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and a steady performer that had never finished out of the money in his seven previous races, bored a hole along the rail and came from far off the pace to win the Derby convincingly.

He became the first Juvenile winner to ever capture the Derby the following spring and the first 2-year-old champion to take the roses back to his barn since Spectacular Bid in 1979. So much for that jinx.

He also won the Derby despite a very light, two-race prep schedule that concluded with a nose-at-the-wire loss in the Blue Grass Stakes. That isn't considered the way to prepare for a win at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, either.

But horses are blissfully unaware of what they are not supposed to do, and Street Sense didn't seem to mind any of it.

"The horse has never run a bad race," said trainer Carl Nafzger.

Not yesterday, anyway.

In a way, it was a strange Derby that still ran largely to form. The afternoon was mostly overcast, but the rains of the previous two days didn't return and the track dried well and was rated fast by post time. The sun even came out. There was no slipping and sliding, no horses that had to run through a curtain of mud behind the leaders.

If it weren't for the pageantry and the history and those 150,000 people screaming - and for the cavalry charge of 20 horses that happens only in the Derby - the race played out as if it were the seventh at Philadelphia Park. Unremarkable . . . except for the winner.

For the first time in four years, there wasn't a strong Philadelphia flavor to the Derby. After a run that included champions Smarty Jones and Barbaro sandwiched around Afleet Alex, the local connections - and they were tenuous this time - didn't intrude too deeply on the Bluegrass State.

Almost, though. Hard Spun, a Pennsylvania-bred based at Delaware Park and owned by a Wilmington native, set the kind of hot pace that was presaged by his workouts here, and ended up beating every horse in the race except for one. Great Hunter, the other Pennsylvania-bred entered, gave a minor imitation of his closing kick but faded badly at the end of the 11/4-mile race.

Other story lines were left in the dirt as well, including trainer Todd Pletcher's five-horse quest to end his career Derby shutout, the sentimental bid by cantankerous trainer Barclay Tagg to win another big race here, and the jinx-breaking effort made by Curlin, the second betting favorite in the race.

Curlin hadn't raced as a 2-year-old and came in with only three career races, a resume exacta that had never won the Derby, and still hasn't. But Curlin didn't curl up against the competition or fail to get the distance. He finished third with a nice closing effort of his own and on some days would have been good enough to win the race.

But even the queen of England, who happened to be in attendance, could tell you that good enough isn't always. And yesterday, good enough wasn't going to get it done against Street Sense.

"When he got to the top of the stretch, I told [owner Jim Tafel], 'We're clear, we're clear. It's up to him now. It's all his,' " Nafzger said.

How the horse got clear, however, is another matter. Jockey Calvin Borel - whose nickname is "Bo-Rail" for his fondness for running on the inside - held the horse back through the fast early fractions and was sitting in 19th place, 20 lengths behind after the first half mile.

"I let 'em go because they were clipping along pretty good at the front," said Borel, who started his riding career as an 8-year-old in match races in his native Louisiana. "I just stayed on the fence."

He was still in 17th place after three-quarters of a mile, which is definitely not a good idea in this race, but Borel's penchant was somehow rewarded when the field drifted out a little and an enormous lane opened ahead of him.

Lucky or not, the colt responded when Borel hit the gas and then neatly sidestepped around a tiring horse named Sedgefield and went to work on erasing Hard Spun's remaining lead. It didn't take long, and Street Sense was clear by more than two lengths as Borel peaked under his arm near the finish line and began to wave his whip in celebration.

"The greatest moment of any jockey's life is to pass under the wire in the Kentucky Derby - in front," Borel said.

It was a day in which some traditions suffered an upset, a day in which a few accepted wisdoms took a tumble. But the jockey who hugged the rail tightly did affirm one eternal truth about his simple strategy.

"It's just the shortest way around the race track," Borel said.

And having the best horse is the quickest.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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