Kentucky Derby champion Street Sense had burst past Curlin in the final turn and reeled in Hard Spun and looked as if he would win as they came down the stretch. But Curlin wasn't finished, and when Street Sense jockey Calvin Borel looked back under his right arm, what he saw gave him chills.
Curlin was coming, pounding back, pulling up beside him so close the jockeys' stirrups all but touched.
"This close," said Curlin's jockey, Robby Albarado, holding his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart. And that's about how close this Preakness was, as Curlin made a last surge for a head bob that beat Street Sense at the finish line.
In the stands, Curlin's owners - Jess Jackson, Shirley Cunningham, George Bolton and Satish Sanan - were celebrating. Jumping up and down. Convinced they'd won, but trainer Steve Asmussen wouldn't look.
"I'm not that optimistic," Asmussen said when asked if he knew his horse had won. "I don't think I'm superstitious, but I wasn't going to take any chances. I didn't look at the scoreboard until someone told me our number was up there."
On the racetrack, neither Albarado nor Borel had any such doubts.
"I was on his back, and I knew we'd won," Albarado said.
And Borel confirmed it. "You got me! Congratulations," he said as the two galloped out.
A few minutes later, when Borel dismounted, his eyes momentarily became moist. But when asked what had happened, he got hold of his emotions.
"He ran hard the whole way," Borel said of Street Sense. "The hole opened up and maybe it was a jump or two early, but I had to go. At the quarter pole, I switched leads and thought we were going to win. Then I looked back. But he's still the best horse in racing."
At the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense had won the duel with Hard Spun and Curlin finishing second and third, respectively. Here, it was Curlin ($8.80, $3.80 and $2.80) finishing off Street Sense in 1 minute, 53.46 seconds, a time that tied the Preakness race record and ended hope for a Triple Crown winner this year.
The effort thrilled the record crowd of 121,263 who ignored showers just before the race began and stood and roared as the race to the wire unfolded. Hard Spun, with Ellicott City jockey Mario Pino riding, streaked into the lead at the three-quarter pole, and it was at that point, when the fractions showed 1:09.80, that Hard Spun's trainer Larry Jones became nervous.
"The trouble was going to be holding the speed," Jones said. "If Nick's horse [C P West, trained by Nick Zito] hadn't come up so early, we wouldn't have had to surge like that.
"But this was a great horse race. And it could be a three-way rivalry going into the Belmont. Of course, if it is, it might be our turn to win. Hard Spun's mother won a mile-and-a-half stakes, so there is no reason to think he can't."
But that's the future. Yesterday, Curlin showed he is everything Asmussen thought he was from the beginning, overcoming a significant stumble out of the gate that Albarado said nearly forced his horse to his knees.
"He stumbled pretty bad leaving the gates," said Albarado, who took his own tumble two races earlier in the Dixie Stakes when his mount, Einstein, was forced to leap over a horse and rider that had fallen in front of him.
Albarado had emerged without injury from that mishap and was focused on making sure his horse didn't get trapped among horses the way he had in the Derby, when he broke from the No. 2 post.
"My whole focus today was getting him away from the gates in order," Albarado said. "I kept focusing on that, making sure he was wound up well enough and he stumbled. Obviously, I had to go to Plan B.
"I had to use him a little more than I needed to under the wire the first time, keeping him in contention. But I was always content where I was."
He and Street Sense were never more than a horse apart down the backstretch, and Albarado said he was just waiting for Street Sense to come by.
"And when he came, he just flew, coming inside me very, very rapid," Albarado said. "He just exploded."
Street Sense split rivals while four-wide entering the stretch and charged to the front. But behind him, Curlin and Albarado were keeping him in sight, and, in a bold, unusual move, Curlin circled five-wide down the stretch to come back for the win.
"Curlin rose to this level," said Asmussen, who with Albarado won a classic race for the first time. "He ran better today than he did in the Kentucky Derby. Today, here, he was good enough to win. He beat a very good horse in a very good race in record [-tying] time, a race so good they won't see one that good again for a while.
"And this is the dream. To win a classic. Everything my family has has come from racing. I lost my grandmother this week, and that lends perspective. I learned all I know about horse racing from my dad, who was a jockey, and my mom, who trained. This will be appreciated so much."
And yet, there was more to Asmussen's joy. For two weeks, everyone has listened to Street Sense trainer Carl Nafzger talk about how it was Street Sense who had brought him to the Derby and the Preakness. Yesterday, it was Asmussen who turned the light of victory back to his horse, who had stood in the Preakness winner's circle in a glorious burst of sunlight between showers, his red coat glowing.
"What I really wanted most of all was for everyone to know how good Curlin is," said Asmussen, who was behind putting together an ownership group that paid a reported $3.5 million to buy majority ownership of the horse. "It was hard to be quiet after the Derby and let everyone question him. But now, it won't happen again."