LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- This has been an outstanding year for Hard Spun. A resounding victory in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park marked him as a major contender for the Kentucky Derby, in which he ran a huge race to finish second. And after running third the Preakness, fourth in the Belmont, and second in the Haskell, the colt returned last month to win the first Grade 1 race of his career, the Aug. 25 King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga.
But even in winning the King's Bishop, Hard Spun was relegated to the shadows of his nemesis: Street Sense, who later that day at Saratoga captured the more prestigious Travers Stakes. Months before, it had been Street Sense who surged past Hard Spun to take away the Derby, and it was Street Sense who finished ahead of Hard Spun in the Preakness, narrowly losing a dramatic duel with Curlin.
As their 3-year-old seasons wind down, Hard Spun and Street Sense will meet again Saturday in the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park. Several major factors surrounding the Kentucky Cup seem to favor Hard Spun, and the colt's trainer, Larry Jones, is keenly aware of them.
"I don't know if you'd ever have an advantage over a horse as good as Street Sense," said Jones, who trains Hard Spun for the Fox Hill Farms of Rick Porter. "But I do agree with what some people are saying, that hopefully this is our best shot to beat him."
In his lone start over Polytrack, the surface in use at Turfway, Hard Spun was impressive in his March 24 Lane's End triumph. Conversely, Street Sense has been defeated in both of his starts over Polytrack, both at Keeneland, in the Breeders' Futurity last fall and in the Blue Grass Stakes in the spring.
Furthermore, the field for the KC Classic will probably be very small -- officials at the Florence, Ky., track expect four to six runners -- and it is widely accepted that a speedier horse such as Hard Spun tends to have a tactical edge over a late-runner such as Street Sense in something that could easily boil down to a match-race scenario.
And there's more. With Hard Spun coming off a seven-furlong win, and Street Sense winning the 1 1/4-mile Travers, the 1 1/8-mile distance of the KC Classic would seem better suited to Hard Spun and his speed. And perhaps most notable is this: Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, is famous for using a race such as this toward a more important goal, which happens to be the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27 at Monmouth Park.
"Maybe this is our chance to finally get him," said Jones, a Kentuckian who makes Delaware Park his primary base. "Maybe he won't like Turfway as much as he likes Churchill -- that's his best track he beat us on in the Derby. My horse ran really well there at Turfway in the spring, and the mile and an eighth, that's not going to be a disadvantage to us. We're sure going to try to put all these things to our advantage Saturday and beat him."
Jones said that a good race by Hard Spun most likely would earn the colt a trip to the BC Classic. If he runs poorly, Hard Spun would have to settle for the $1 million BC Dirt Mile on Oct. 26. As for Nafzger, the BC Classic clearly is the more important of the two races that remain in Street Sense's career, but he isn't about to concede the Kentucky Cup to Hard Spun.
"Anybody who knows me knows that I want to win every time I lead a horse over there," Nafzger said shortly after Street Sense breezed Tuesday at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Joking, he added, "I want to win this one because that cowboy buddy of mine's got the other horse in there," a reference to Nafzger's background in bull riding and Jones's penchant for wearing a cowboy hat.
Barring a bizarre result Saturday, and regardless of which colt wins, there seems little doubt that Street Sense will exit the Kentucky Cup as one of the favorites for the BC Classic four weeks later, while Hard Spun likely would rate anywhere from a fringe player to longshot if Porter and Jones choose the same race for him. With a much larger field and far more speed in the BC Classic, and with the added distance to 1 1/4 miles and another Polytrack race under Street Sense's belt - victories in the BC Juvenile and the Derby directly followed his two Polytrack losses at Keeneland - both horses will be faced with much different circumstances at Monmouth than what awaits them Saturday at Turfway.
"Speed is hard to beat when it comes down to a small field, and they can dominate the pace much more," said Nafzger. "But if my horses relaxes good, makes a strong run down the lane ... if we get beat and don't catch up, that's one thing, but if we make a strong run, that's probably going to take me where I want to be once we get to Monmouth."