Barbaro has many fans thinking Triple Crown

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BALTIMORE (AP) – Barbaro is finished playing around at his country home in the hills.

The unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner jogged early Friday at the tranquil Fair Hill Training Center before he was shipped by van to Pimlico to get back to business.

As the colt walked down the ramp into the traditional winner’s stall, No. 40, trainer Michael Matz was certain Barbaro was ready for his next task: a victory in Saturday’s $1 million Preakness and then an attempt at what 10 horses have tried and failed to do since Affirmed in 1978 – become a Triple Crown champion.

“I would love him to win the Preakness and go on,” Matz said outside his barn at Fair Hill. “But first we’ve got this job in front of us.”

There have been many Triple Crown close calls in the past decade, with six horses winning the first two legs in the last nine years. The closest came in 1998, when Real Quiet was nosed out at the wire in the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel in thoroughbred racing’s crowning achievement. The most recent bid was a heartbreaker, too, when Smarty Jones was caught in the final 70 yards.

On the eve of the 131st Preakness, Barbaro has racing fans on edge. For weeks, Matz has been saying his strapping 3-year-old bay colt has the “ability, heart and the desire to win – and he’s undefeated.”

Assistant trainer Peter Brette, who exercises the horse every morning, is even more succinct. Asked what it feels like to be aboard, the Englishman says simply, “like a Rolls Royce.”

Barbaro was bred to be a top-of-the-line model. His stamina was provided by his sire, Dynaformer, his speed by his dam, La Ville Rouge. Barbaro’s versatility as a turf and dirt star show up throughout his pedigree, and he’s shown he doesn’t mind running in the slop.

Most impressive, though, was the way he pulled off to win by 61/2 lengths at Churchill Downs two weeks ago. That convinced most of his Derby rivals not to bother showing up at Pimlico. The margin of victory was the largest since Triple Crown winner Assault won by eight lengths 60 years ago, and jockey Edgar Prado didn’t even use his whip in the stretch.

Put it all together, and a nine-horse field has just two Derby contenders back for another shot, with Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint seeking a smoother ride than they got in a 20-horse field at the Derby. Even if they do, the question remains whether it will be enough to beat a colt who has improved with every race.

“It’s just how great Barbaro is,” Brother Derek’s trainer Dan Hendricks said.

Barbaro is the even-money favorite for the shortest of the Triple Crown races. Brother Derek, the talented California-bred who finished in a dead heat for fourth at the Derby, is the second choice at 3-1, with Sweetnorthernsaint at 4-1 off his seventh-place Derby finish.

The rest of the field is led by lightly raced Withers winner Bernardini at 8-1, followed by long shots Like Now, Greeley’s Legacy, Hemingway’s Key, Diabolical and Platinum Couple.

Just about everything seems to be in Barbaro’s favor: The Preakness favorite has won the last five times, and the only new shooter to win since 1983 was Red Bullet in 2000.

“We have the potential that maybe we could win the Triple Crown this year,” the usually low-key Prado said. “Hopefully, he stays the way he was for this race.”

Other than the actual running of the race, there is one unknown: How will Barbaro bounce back from a two-week layoff?

Matz prepared for that contingency, carefully spacing the colt’s races on the road to the Triple Crown. After Barbaro’s win in the Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1, the colt took the Holy Bull on Feb. 4, the Florida Derby on April 1 and the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

“We can’t worry about beating him, he’s got to beat himself,” Like Now’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said after his Jazil dead-heated for fourth and Flashy Bull was 14th in the Derby. “The timing has to beat him. We just hope the two weeks sets him back.”

After all that planning, Matz is as eager to find out as anyone, especially after the R & R stint at his home in Fair Hill.

“We think we have done everything, we can do … we think,” Matz said. “Tomorrow, if he finished up the track, then (there’s) something we missed, or something (about) two weeks he doesn’t like.

“Considering he just came out of a race two weeks ago, his blood is good, he’s eating well. We blew him out a little bit (Thursday) and he seems happy. I don’t know what more I can do.”

The Derby trio will leave the gate next to each other – Brother Derek in gate No. 5, Barbaro in No. 6 and Sweetnorthernsaint in No. 7.

Like Now, winner of the Gotham Stakes, is expected to set the early pace leaving from the rail, with Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek likely to be in close pursuit and Barbaro in the mix, too.

In all his other races, Barbaro ran just off the lead and made his winning move around the final turn heading for home. It remains to be seen whether any of his rivals can stick with him in the stretch.

Post time for the 1 3-16-mile Preakness is 6:15 p.m. The weather forecast for Saturday is calling for partly cloudy skies, temperatures in the 70s and a 20 percent chance of rain.

No matter the conditions, Brette said it won’t be a problem for Barbaro.

“I think he’d run on a plowed field if he had to he’s so well balanced,” Brette said.

AP-ES-05-19-06 1602EDT


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