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Friday, May 12, 2006
Updated: May 13, 7:20 PM ET
Derby winner Barbaro looks invincible for Preakness

By Richard Rosenblatt
Associated Press

Barbaro was so overpowering in his Kentucky Derby romp that winning next Saturday's Preakness seems to be a foregone conclusion. Load 'em in the gate, and the big bay colt will prevail no matter who's running or how the race unfolds.

If this scenario plays out for undefeated Barbaro, the stage would be set for thoroughbred racing's most dramatic event: A Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later.

We've heard this story time and again in the past decade -- from Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic to War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. All were gallant Derby and Preakness winners from 1997-2005, but all failed to become the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978 and the 12th overall.

Not only would Barbaro attempt to end the longest drought between Triple Crown winners -- 28 years -- he would be trying to join Seattle Slew as the only unbeatens to sweep the series.

Barbaro is giving out extraordinary vibes that he can do it, too. After a 6 1/2-length Derby win, even the colt's trainer, Michael Matz, feels something special is happening.

"I think this horse can win the Triple Crown," Matz said this week at Fair Hill Training Center, Barbaro's home in the countryside of Elkton, Md. "He just has so many good qualities. I think the public is looking for someone to do that, and I hope he's the one."

There's been nothing but praise since the Derby.

"I'd say he's the best horse I've seen in the past 25 years -- on the dirt, turf, any age group," retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens marveled. "I don't think we've seen near his best race yet."

Before all this Triple speak really ramps up, early favorite Barbaro has to conquer a bunch of talented 3-year-olds going 1 3-16 miles around the tight turns of Pimlico on two weeks rest. It's a huge challenge after dealing with a full field of 20 horses going 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs.

"It's another game, another race at another time at another track," retired Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day said. "Nothing is a given."

It's rare that an impressive Derby winner falters in the Preakness, but it does happen:

-- Six years ago, Fusaichi Pegasus was the odds-on choice after winning the Derby, but tired in the stretch and finished behind Red Bullet.

-- Bold Forbes was even-money to win the 1976 Preakness, but finished third after fading in the stretch.

-- Riva Ridge, the odds-on choice in the '72 Preakness, was fourth behind Bee Bee Bee after a troubled trip left the colt with little left in the stretch.

Stevens may love Barbaro, but warns: "No horse is invincible."

He should know, too. Just when Real Quiet looked like a Triple Crown winner near the end of the 1998 Belmont, Stevens came flying past aboard Victory Gallop and won by a nose.

Then again, the Preakness could be a breeze, like Smarty Jones' record 11 1/2-length rout two years ago, or Funny Cide's 9 3/4-length win a year earlier.

"He's absolutely capable of winning the Triple Crown," Day said. "I'll be watching the Preakness with bated breath."

A field of seven or eight is shaping up for the Preakness.

Among the challengers will be Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint, high-quality colts who had poor trips in the Derby. Brother Derek was fourth after racing wide and losing a shoe and Sweetnorthernsaint finished seventh after a troubled start left him without a finishing kick in the stretch.

Others in the field include Withers Stakes winner Bernardini, Gotham Stakes winner Like Now and Hemingway's Key.

Trainer Dan Hendricks expects Brother Derek to give Barbaro a tough fight in a smaller field.

"I'm just hoping with a clean trip I can outrun him," Hendricks said. "If I can't, I hope he wins the Triple Crown by more lengths every time."

Trainer Michael Trombetta was amazed at Barbaro's stretch run, but hopes Sweetnorthernsaint can be closer to the lead when the field turns for home.

"I didn't think anybody would bust loose from the field and win like he did," Trombetta said. "But now he becomes the one everybody's trying to beat. We're all going to try to do our best to get past him."

Barring a bad trip -- he did stumble out of the gate last week -- Barbaro has everything going his way. He's fresh, he's versatile and he's unbeaten.

After nearly a week back at Fair Hill, Matz said Barbaro has shown no signs of wear and tear.

"We've had him to the track, and he looked like he was happy and enjoying it," Matz said. "If he continues that way, I don't see any reason why he won't run a good race. But again, you never know."

The great equalizer could be the two-week turnaround.

"It's hard for any horse to run a big race like the Kentucky Derby, then come back in two weeks," Matz said.

But Matz planned wisely for the rigors of the Triple Crown, spacing out Barbaro's races so the colt would be fit for three races in five weeks at varying distances over three tracks.

Barbaro won his first three starts on the turf, including the Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1. Then it was time to try the dirt. With Edgar Prado aboard, Barbaro won the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 by three-quarters of a length in the slop at Gulfstream Park.

Eight weeks later -- a long break between races -- Barbaro was tested for the first time and outdueled Sharp Humor for a half-length victory in the Florida Derby.

It was another five weeks to the Derby, but Matz didn't care. So what, he said, if the last Derby winner coming off such a long layoff was Needles in 1956? Until last year, how many preps were run five weeks out? Not many.

"The way he has managed this horse, it's genius," Stevens said.

So far, anyway.

Preaknesss television coverage begins Saturday, May 20 at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports.