Triple Crown is Barbaro’s to lose

May 9, 2006 1:58 AM

In a little over two minutes, Barbaro took all the suspense out of the Triple Crown.

Even though winning racing’s most elusive prize is rarer than a bald Kennedy, Barbaro captured the 132nd Kentucky Derby this past Saturday with such consummate ease that I don’t know why the connections of the 19 horses that finished behind him would even contemplate running in the Preakness on May 20 or the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Jockey Edgar Prado, in winning his first Derby, never hit the cantankerous Barbaro with his whip, merely scrubbing it briefly against him en route to a 6½ length victory in a perfect ride. The record margin is eight lengths, shared by Old Rosebud (1914), Johnstown (1939), and Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Assault (1946).

Barbaro, now undefeated in six starts, including his first three on turf, certainly won more impressively than the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in 1978. He even won with more authority than the revered Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, who took the Derby by 2½ lengths. While jaws dropped after Giacomo’s 50-1 upset win last year, there were no such displays this year. The best horse won.

"Hopefully," Prado said, "we can get a Triple Crown."

Barbaro was so good he accomplished something no horse had done in 50 years — win the Run for the Roses five weeks since his last race. Barbaro had not run since taking the Florida Derby on April 1. The last horse to win under such a scenario was Needles in 1956. This could have been a major reason most handicappers dismissed Barbaro, even though he paid $14.20 to win as the second choice to steam horse Sweetnorthernsaint, who finished seventh as the tepid 5-1 favorite.

Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, faces a potential drawback now in that he won’t have the luxury of a five-week recuperative window if he hopes to win the Triple Crown.

I picked Barbaro fourth. Lawyer Ron, who finished a non-menacing 12th, was my first choice. Due to deadline constraints, my selections had to be made prior to the post position draw. That’s not an excuse, but I soon knew I was done on two counts:

”¡ First, when he drew post position No. 17.

”¡ Second, when he was dead on the board from the opening of the betting.

In 131 previous runnings, no horse had ever won from the 17 post. In fact, 17 and 19 are the only post positions from which a horse has never won. Lawyer Ron was the 4-1 morning line choice in the field of 20, but opened around 10-1 and never dropped much below. It was a complete lack of confidence at the mutuel machines, rarely a good sign.

C’est la vie.

The most successful Derby post positions are No. 1 and No. 5, with 12 victories each. Then come four and 10 with 10 wins each. No other post positions have more than nine. They are 2 and now 8, thanks to Barbaro’s triumph.

It was a breath of fresh air seeing a gentleman trainer like Matz win the Derby. He made his debut with Barbaro at a Saratoga in miniature, bucolic Delaware Park in Stanton. Matz is a former Olympic medalist and an accomplished equestrian who looks like he just stepped off the pages of GQ. He celebrated the victory with his first Derby starter in understated class. No high-fives, no clenched fists, no shrill whoops, no boogaloos on the way to the winners’ circle.

Hallelujah!

Post-race analysts credited Barbaro with rating off the two front runners, but that was deceptive, because he might as well have been on the lead. He sat third most of the race while two run-offs that couldn’t win at a mile and a quarter in a one-horse race set the pace. Early leader Keyed Entry ultimately finished last, while his closest pursuer, Sinister Minister, dawdled home 16th.

Trainers whose horses were vanquished by Barbaro in the Derby already have committed to tackle Barbaro again in the Preakness. To them I say, "Good luck," because off Barbaro’s smashing Derby victory, I wouldn’t be eager to try him again.

You’d sooner see me in the audience of "RV."

THE HOMESTRETCH:

”¡ Soundalikes: John McKee and Kent Desormeaux.

”¡ Doug O’Neill on the comeback of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Stevie Wonderboy, who missed the Derby with an ankle injury: "He’s doing great, but right now it’s kind of like watching grass grow. He’s about 40 days from coming back to Hollywood from (owner) Merv Griffin’s ranch near Palm Springs. At that point, it will probably be three or four months before he’s ready to run, so we’re looking at an October or November start."

”¡ Sam’s Ace, fourth in the Florida Derby, was injured in the Snow Chief Stakes and likely will not race again. "He’s going to make it, but I don’t know if it will be as a race horse," O’Neill said. "He strained the inside branch of a suspensory ligament in his right front leg pretty bad. He’ll probably be either a stud or a pony for somebody."

”¡ Michael Whittingham, 60-year-old son of the legendary Charlie Whittingham, is back training after a one-year sabbatical during which he worked in construction.

”¡ I see where the Breeders’ Cup raised its purses to $20 million, with the Classic getting a $1 million boost to $5 million. But with gas prices escalating by the minute (they went up 12 cents last week in LA), bet on this: it’s not a matter of if, but when, the Middle East oil kingpins swell the pot of the Dubai World Cup from $6 million to, say, $10 million, without blinking an eye.

”¡ And I heard the President say that if he finds any evidence of price-gouging by oil companies, it’s going to be dealt with firmly. What’s he going to do, give us our money back?