AP Racing Writer
BALTIMORE - Street Sense had just returned from his first gallop around Pimlico Race Course, and the Kentucky Derby winner was enjoying a sponge bath outside the Preakness stakes barn under the watchful eye of Carl Nafzger.
''Great. Perfect,'' the trainer declared Friday as the dark bay colt was being led back to stall No. 40, the traditional home of the Derby winner. ''He handled it good, did everything right. He relaxed, jogged back by the crowd, looked at the grandstand ... I'm confident.''
Now it's on to the real challenge: Win the $1 million Preakness Stakes on Saturday, then attempt to become the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978 by capturing the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.
And there sure seems to be a sense of victory in the air - at least from the Street Sense camp.
''If we get by this one,'' said the colt's jockey, Calvin Borel, ''I think we can win the next one.''
Even James Tafel, the colt's 83-year-old owner, has Triple on his mind.
''It's almost beyond description,'' he said earlier this week. ''It's the aspiration of every horseman.''
Street Sense arrived at Pimlico on Wednesday, following his breathtaking 21⁄4-length victory in the Derby.
Two weeks later, Street Sense seems to be fresher than ever. And why not, after just three races since his record-setting, 10-length win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile back on Nov. 4?
''Right now, I don't think he can get beat,'' Borel said. ''As good as he's doing, I'm positive he'd have to fall or have something happen bad for him to get beat.''
Street Sense is the 7-5 morning-line favorite in a field of nine 3-year-olds. Three other Derby horses are back for another shot - runner-up Hard Spun, third-place finisher Curlin and Circular Quay, who was sixth.
Todd Pletcher, looking to end an 0-for-26 streak in Triple Crown races, will try with a pair of colts - Circular Quay and King of the Roxy, who finished second in the Santa Anita Derby but skipped the Louisville Derby.
D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, Hall of Fame trainers without Derby starters this year, return to the Triple Crown trail with a pair of 20-1 long shots: Lukas with Derby Trial winner Flying First Class; Zito with Withers Stakes runner-up C P West.
Mint Slewlep and Xchanger complete the field.
Favorites, though, have won the Preakness five of the last six times. The only top pick who didn't was the ill-fated Barbaro, who took a tragic misstep at the start of last year's race.
If Street Sense delivers, racing would have its seventh Triple Crown attempt in the past 11 years. The closest call came in 1998, when Real Quiet was nosed out at the wire by Victory Gallop. The most recent bid was a stunner, too, when Smarty Jones was caught in the final 70 yards by Birdstone and lost by a length.
Racing could use some good news following Barbaro's breakdown and an eight-month ordeal of ups, downs and, finally, heartbreak when the colt was euthanized on Jan. 29.
Street Sense could be the next star the sport is looking for. He's versatile - he can sit off the early leaders or drop back and make one of his electrifying closing moves. Either way, Borel says Street Sense seems to know where to be.
''He's the kind of horse who makes his own trip,'' Borel said. ''If the speed's hot, we'll be way back. If it's not he'll put me in the game.''
Lukas says if Street Sense gets past the Preakness, he'll have a strong shot at becoming the 12th Triple Crown champion, joining the likes of Citation, Secretariat and Seattle Slew.
''I think he fits the Belmont a little bit better,'' Lukas said. ''He's obviously not going to have a distance limitation. He's got that stalking position and he's got that extremely good turn of foot and acceleration. I think you need that. If he gets by this one, we're going to anoint him.''
There are subplots, too:
•Hard Spun, who led much of the Derby before Street Sense blew past him, is looking to turn the tables. Earlier this week, Hard Spun trainer Larry Jones' wife was kidding with Nafzger, telling him: ''It was your turn to win last time, now it's our turn.'' Nafzger wouldn't hear it: ''No, no. It's our turn again.''
The 5-2 second choice, Hard Spun will be ridden by Maryland's all-time leading rider, Mario Pino.
•How will Curlin rebound from the first loss in his brief career after three wins by a combined 281⁄2 lengths? The colt who was all the rage Derby week is the 7-2 third choice.
Pletcher, the nation's top trainer the past three years, has run only one other horse in the Preakness - Impeachment was third in 2000. He's hoping for a good showing, especially after going 0-for-5 in the Derby and dropping to 0-for-19 in the run for the roses.