Flashback: 2007 Preakness foreshadowed Curlin's greatness

Curlin. Street Sense. Hard Spun. Rags to Riches. The 3-year-olds of 2007 were a deep, elite group of genuine stars, and the battles they waged during the spring classics rank among the most memorable in recent decades.

Certainly the 2007 Preakness Stakes was one for the ages. Unfolding at a blazing tempo, the second jewel of the Triple Crown saw the division’s greatest stars unleash multiple moves and strategic challenges in a highly nuanced battle. The outcome was uncertain until the final strides and, even then, a review of the finish line photo was necessary to confirm the results.

Heading into the 1 3/16-mile classic at Pimlico, the star of the show was the reigning champion 2-year-old, Street Sense. Two weeks prior, the popular colt had unleashed a bold rally to win the Kentucky Derby, threading his way through the field under jockey Calvin Borel to win by 2 1/4 lengths over front-running Hard Spun.

But finishing third in the Kentucky Derby was a lightly raced colt destined for stardom: Curlin. In the “Run for the Roses,” which marked just the fourth start of his budding career, Curlin encountered a bit of traffic in the early going and subsequently raced wide to finish eight lengths behind Street Sense. Considering the chestnut colt had debuted just three months prior, Curlin’s effort in the Derby was admirable. But bettors were skeptical whether Curlin could turn the tables on Street Sense in the Preakness, favoring the Derby winner at 13-10.

What followed was a heart-pounding battle between past and future champions.

The drama began as soon as the gates opened. Curlin, breaking from post four under jockey Robby Albarado, stumbled at the start and soon found himself racing behind horses, seemingly weaving around in response to kickback as longshots Xchanger and Flying First Class sprinted to the lead. Sitting chilly to Curlin’s outside was Street Sense, racing confidently toward the back of the pack, biding his time just like in the Derby.

The pace was blazing heading into the first turn, with Xchanger throwing down splits of :22.83 and :45.75. Eyeing the battle from third place was Hard Spun, showing a new dimension rating off the pace, but the speedy colt wouldn’t humor the pacesetters for long. Traveling down the backstretch, Hard Spun unleashed a sudden burst of speed to swallow the leaders and assume a clear lead through six furlongs in a stiff 1:09.80.

But Hard Spun wasn’t the only runner on the move. The fast pace had strung out the field over 18 lengths down the backstretch, affording Curlin an opportunity to escape from traffic and settle into stride. Rounding the far turn, Curlin began to advance outside of horses, getting the jump on Street Sense while sweeping into contention with a four-wide bid.

Yet Street Sense was ready to match Curlin’s move. When Borel asked the Derby winner to accelerate, Street Sense responded with a terrific burst of speed. First on the outside, and then in between runners, Street Sense sliced his way through the pack with authority. In a few strides he regained the ground he’d lost to Curlin, boldly diving inside his rival at the top of the stretch to challenge for the lead.

For a brief moment, the stars of the classic generation lined up. Hard Spun, clinging desperately to the lead, was growing leg-weary along the rail. Curlin, though still running strongly, was failing to match strides with Street Sense, who smoothly advanced between them to seize the lead. With just a furlong left to run, Street Sense was in front by 1 1/2 lengths, with victory seemingly assured.

But this challenge seemed to stoke a fire within Curlin. Somewhere, deep down, the heart of a champion was awakening.

Undeterred by the momentum of Street Sense, Curlin found another gear. Slowly but surely, he regained lost ground, edging up alongside the flank of his rival. Suddenly the outcome was back in doubt, and NBC Sports announcer Tom Durkin perfectly captured the dramatic turn of events with three succinct sentences: “Here comes Curlin! Curlin surging! Street Sense in deep waters!”

As the two gallant sophomores flashed across the finish line, Curlin — in full flight on the outside — put his head down in front. Albarado raised his whip in triumph. He knew his mount had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

“I knew I had it at the wire, and Calvin knew it also,” Albarado later told the Louisville, Ky., The Courier-Journal. “… At the sixteenth pole I felt I had a big chance to get to him. Finally he got in the big long stride like he does and was fortunate enough to get the bob and get him at the wire.”

Borel was left to wonder if he’d moved too soon on Street Sense. “I thought it was all over when I got by Hard Spun, turning for home,” Borel said in The Courier-Journal. “I thought he was just going to gallop. … The last 40 yards he was kind of loafing.” Borel later expounded on the point, explaining how Street Sense “pulled up a little bit the last 20 yards, but I can’t take nothing from the winner, because I went by the winner. I thought I was home free. He just came back and got me.”

Whether it was Street Sense’s lack of focus or Curlin’s unwavering willpower that determined the outcome, both colts ran winning races. The timer revealed that Curlin stopped the clock in 1:53.46, which — when measured in fifths of seconds — remains tied for the second-fastest Preakness ever run. There was a gap of four lengths back to Hard Spun, and nearly 30 lengths separated first from last place in a strung-out field.

The achievements of the top three finishers would further reiterate the quality of the 2007 Preakness. Hard Spun went on to claim the King’s Bishop Stakes (G1) and Kentucky Cup Classic (G2) before placing second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Street Sense would rebound to claim the Jim Dandy (G2) and Travers Stakes (G1) during a productive summer campaign.

And Curlin? By the time he retired he’d won seven Grade 1 races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup, while becoming the first horse to earn more than $10 million. A two-time Horse of the Year, Curlin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2014, his first year of eligibility.

It all started with an unforgettable victory in the Preakness Stakes.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.

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