Barbaro's performance in the Kentucky Derby has the racing world looking at the history books. It was a spectacle to watch, and the historical data confirm that the excellence on display was not an illusion. Andrew Beyer points out that Barbaro's final quarter mile was the fastest since Secretariat in 1973. His winning margin of six and one half lengths is the largest since Assault in 1946. Of course, both Assault and Secretariat are Triple Crown Winners and racing legends. Joe Drape senses that Barbaro is a horse that has been "transformed into a burgeoning legend," i.e. on the cusp of greatness himself.
Casual observers of the Triple Crown will no doubt think that racing's hype machine is just being wound up again for publicity's sake. We've had a series of near misses in recent years, capped by Smarty Jones' disappointment in the 2004 Belmont Stakes. But Barbaro's case is different. Here are the horses since 1989 who won the first two legs before getting beat in the Belmont:
2004 -- Smarty Jones (2nd to Birdstone)
2003 -- Funny Cide (3rd to Empire Maker)
2002 -- War Emblem (8th to Sarava)
1999 -- Charismatic (3rd to Lemon Drop Kid)
1998 -- Real Quiet (2nd to Victory Gallop)
1997 -- Silver Charm (2nd to Touch Gold)
1989 -- Sunday Silence (2nd to Easy Goer)
Of the most recent four, only Smarty Jones went into the gate at Belmont with the credentials for greatness. The rest were merely good horses and Triple Crown impostors masquerading behind a cute story. Smarty Jones might have won the mile and a half Belmont with a better timed ride, but regardless, the defeat to Birdstone exposed his weakness. Smarty was essentially a miler who could carry his speed a few extra furlongs under the right conditions.
Barbaro brings back echoes of the three prior attempts. Real Quiet, Silver Charm, and Sunday Silence were tremendous horses that won top races after the Triple Crown. Sunday Silence had the misfortune to run second to Easy Goer -- another great horse on his hometown track -- in the second fastest Belmont in history. His experience illustrates how tough it is, even for a great champion, to run three winning races against top class competition five weeks apart. Silver Charm and Real Quiet were both nailed in the final strides by very good horses suited by the race.
If Barbaro is healthy in five weeks he will win the Belmont. His sire Dynaformer could run all day long at a high cruising speed, and Barbaro appears to have inherited that trait. In contrast, his competitors will get weaker as the distance gets longer.
The tougher test for Barbaro will be in the Preakness, the shortest of the three races, and I think it will come from Brother Derek, the Santa Anita Derby winner. Brother Derek's fourth in the Derby is much better than it looks on paper, and he proved the doubters wrong: he does not need the lead, he can rate and fire. The Derby proved that Brother Derek can't make it to the finish line as fast as Barbaro when forced to steady twice, and run six and nine horses wide on the turns. He had a terrible trip, and still managed fourth.
Barbaro will be odds-on in the Preakness, but Brother Derek will make him earn the money. The Preakness is a traditional horse race and not the rodeo lottery that is the Derby. So racing luck will play less of a role, and we can anticipate a battle between two very fine racehorses.
The bottom line: Barbaro, more than any horse in recent years, comes out of the Derby as a genuine candidate to win the Triple Crown. Barbaro's Derby performance already puts him well above the likes of Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide. But the sense that this is a talented crop of horses remains, and racing greats like Silver Charm and Sunday Silence could not quite get the job done in the Triple Crown. So there's still plenty of work to do for Barbaro. His breeding and running style give him a big edge in the Belmont, and the tougher test looks to be the Preakness.