Triple Crown Is Sports' Toughest Riddle
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool everyone for a 32nd consecutive spring, shame on us.
And we really didn't get that far this year. Super Saver, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, was, well, Lookin at Lucky, for most of the minute and 55 seconds it took Lookin At Lucky to reach the wire first in Saturday's Preakness.
Hence, there will not be a Triple Crown winner this year. There won't even be Triple Crown drama at Belmont in three weekends.
I'm starting to think Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens wasn't just blowing smoke when he told television interviewer Charlie Rose several years ago that he doesn't think we'll ever see another Triple Crown winner because the fields at the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are stocked with too many rested horses.
Lookin At Lucky wasn't any fresher than Super Saver coming into the second leg of the increasingly more elusive Triple Crown of horse racing. Lookin At Lucky was at Churchill Downs two weekends ago, too. He was just a better horse than Super Saver. He was even favored to win the Derby until he drew an unlucky post position, stuck on the rail in a field of 20.
Yet, everything on Saturday looked to be shaping up perfectly for Super Saver to turn the next three weeks into great anticipation. The weather was so perfect that beach volleyball players on Pimlico's infield played in bikinis with more danger of suffering sunburn than a single goose bump.
More important, the track was dry and deemed "fast," which was nothing short of a perfect recipe for a speed horse like Super Saver. He drew a position all but in the middle of the field and smack between Lookin At Lucky and Caracortado, whose chances a lot of people warmed to as post time approached.
But he turned out to be Charlie Brown lining up for a place kick with Lucy holding, just like Mine That Bird last year and Big Brown in 2008 and Barbaro, the tragic colt, in 2006.
What we witnessed Saturday was an extension of what has become the longest drought between Triple Crowns since a quarter-century dry spell between Citation winning it in 1948 and Secretariat doing so in 1973.
Super Saver was right there for three-quarters of the race, galloping easily it looked just beside a front-running First Dude down the first stretch and into the far turn of the 1 3/16-mile race. Then he appeared to run out of gas, or maybe the other horses just had more. They gobbled him up and he wound up eighth.
It didn't matter that Super Saver was ridden by Calvin Borel, the seemingly magical jockey who brought the filly Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness last May to stymie Mine That Bird, which he'd ridden in the Derby. Those who dare to envision a Triple Crown these days just seem to be snake bit. Borel never even got Super Saver to the rail where Borel is known to bring home winners.
Still, Borel told NBC Sports immediately after the race, "I had a perfect trip. He [Super Saver] just came up a little empty. He ran so big in the Derby."
Maybe Super Saver's skittishness coming through the paddock before the race was an omen of what was to come. Maybe he was spooked by Triple Crown failures before him. Several railbirds watching the jumpiness thought so and claimed to be begging off of him right then.
Super Saver's trainer Todd Pletcher was never comfortable with running the horse on just two weeks' rest.
"Coming off a huge effort in the Derby, the two weeks was just too short," Pletcher said after Saturday's setback, reiterating his caution from days previous. "When they went to the far turn, you could see Calvin kind of squeezed him and was asking him to go get that horse [First Dude]. He just couldn't do it. He hung in there, he kept fighting. Just back a little quick for him. Now we've got time to regroup and come back for a big summer."
But for the casual race fan, which would probably describe most who tune in each spring to the Derby and Preakness, who cares? The Triple Crown is horse racing's greatest draw and, when it isn't up for grabs, its greatest distraction. It's like Lookin At Lucky's trainer Bob Baffert said afterward. The Derby is horse racing's Super Bowl and the Preakness is a conference championship game.
That would suggest the Belmont is just a regular-season contest when it rolls around without a horse bejeweled with crowns from the Derby and Preakness.
Had Lookin At Lucky been lucky enough to draw a better post position at the Derby, maybe we would have a little something to look forward to in New York.
"When he drew the one hole," Baffert recalled after winning Saturday, "I just felt emptiness. I wanted to scratch the horse. I was sick about it because I knew he's done there. I felt beat. I really couldn't get into the Derby."
So let us write off this year's chance for a Triple Crown to the luck, or lack thereof, of the draw.