In one of the gamest and most memorable performances seen in a racing classic of the modern era, Curlin relentlessly wore down a Kentucky Derby champion and snatched away the Triple Crown dreams of Street Sense and his fans in the shadow of the Pimlico finish line.

The promise that the lightly raced Curlin might become the first classics winner in more than a century to win Americas biggest race without the foundation gained by juvenile racing and in only its fourth lifetime start was delivered in another classic two weeks later at Pimlico.

Leaving the three-sixteenths pole, Calvin Borel, who engineered a Preakness ride even greater than his Derby masterpiece, came off the inside to intimidate and discourage the only rival that could beat him at that point, opening a clear and seemingly insurmountable lead with less than a furlong remaining.

But Curlin, his focus squarely on the hindquarters of his most impressive Derby rival, kept coming and coming until, bang, he grabbed him right on the line. And the two jockeys galloped out past the wire as a team, Borel, inside on the Derby winner, Robbie Albarado, who bailed out on Einstein two races earlier to avoid a fallen rival, on the outside, completing an all Cajun exacta.

The official winning Preakness margin was a head but the finish was thisclose. If both horses come out of their Preakness efforts in a satisfactory condition, it sets up the rubber match at Belmont Park where it was hoped racing would be collectively rooting on a 12th Triple Crown champion. Next year, on the anniversary of Affirmed and Alydar, maybe.

For Curlin, his upside remains squarely in tact. Racing a bit greenly in the Preakness, his sudden turn of foot catapulted him past rivals on the far turn as if they were standing still. But it seemed like it would all go for naught when Street Sense and Borel came out to greet him, and pass him, leaving the furlong grounds.

And it turned out to be a bad racetrack joke for Carl Nafzger, who perhaps should have known better and should not have broken out into an Ill-take-it-from-here smile. Instantly, a wide smile was replaced by a look of great concern. I think we got nipped, said Nafzger, turning left to inform owner Jim Tafel as the team hit the wire together.

A classy Borel offered no excuses. I saw [Curlin] kept coming, and I was worried. [Street Sense] gets into the crowd a little bit, and he gets to waitin. But no, no excuses.

The confidence trainer Steve Asmussen showed after the Derby once he was sure that Curlins energy and demeanor had not changed following the colts Herculean show finish in Louisville after a stutter-step start--an incident repeated yesterday when he bobbled out of the starting gate--was justified deep in the Pimlico straight. Indeed, Asmussen has a very good colt, too.

While the result for Street Sense might have been disappointing, his effort was not. He did everything right but win. Round 3 commences in Elmont in three weeks. If the events there are anything like what was on display in Louisville and Baltimore, great racing theater is assured. Again.

Horse races like yesterdays is what makes the quest for a Triple Crown so special. And why its one of the most coveted and difficult prizes to win in all of sports.