The Last WordAre the physical demands of the Triple Crown too great to ensure another winner? It's been 25 years and no one is holding their breath in anticipation.
By ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rest easy, Big Red.
You too, Affirmed and Seattle Slew and the rest of racing's Triple Crown club.
You may add a 12th member some day, it's just difficult to imagine when.
It's been 30 years since the late, great chestnut Secretariat electrified the sport by winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
It's been 25 trips through the calendar since Affirmed was the most recent to do it, though there have been 14 to capture two legs in the years between.
Empire Maker was a horse who was bred, trained and raced in a style that made him look like a legitimate candidate to break the membership freeze.
After being upset by Funny Cide in Saturday's 129th Derby though, he'll be remembered as just another failed favourite in the history of a race full of them.
The morning after the Run for the Roses is a perfect time for second-guessing.
To his credit, Empire Maker's trainer, Bobby Frankel, wasn't reaching for excuses, but wondered if he perhaps took the Derby a little for granted in pursuit of the bigger picture.
"Maybe I should have trained him differently, maybe I shouldn't have been so easy on him," Frankel said when he arrived at Churchill Downs yesterday morning.
"I thought maybe I could sneak through the Derby, then I would have a fresh horse all the way through.
"I was thinking Triple Crown. I was trying to get him through as easy as possible."
Because Empire Maker lost the Derby, it's hard to say Frankel had a sound strategy.
But history shows his logic also makes some sense. Asking still developing three-year-olds to run three races in a span of five weeks over three different tracks is a gruelling assignment with no margin for error.
If a horse uses too much energy in the Derby, he has to recover in the quick two weeks before the Preakness where invariably there will be some horses who skipped the first leg ready to play spoiler.
Since 1997, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic and War Emblem have all captured the first two jewels before running out of gas at the Belmont.
Only Silver Charm was defeated by a horse that raced in all three, Victory Gallop. The others were finished off by fresh horses waiting for the kill.
Two years ago, Point Given may have been the best Triple Crown candidate in recent history. He proved it with wins in the Belmont and Preakness, but he didn't handle the furor of Derby day when he finished fifth.
Frankel will do his best to stop Funny Cide's bid this year, though likely not with Empire Maker.
The trainer said he believes Peace Rules, who was a solid third in the Derby, is a horse well-suited to the 1-3/16th mile Preakness.
"The distance is perfect for him and the way he raced near the lead (in the Derby) is perfect as well," Frankel said.
"He's a tough, game horse."
As many as eight Derby runners are expected to move on to Pimlico for the Preakness. No fresh horses were confirmed as of yesterday, but it's a safe bet that will change.
Funny Cide will be there, of course, and just as they did at the Derby, many will rule him out again. Trainer Barclay Tagg, who said that, prior to the Crown, he believed the Preakness may have been Funny Cide's best shot, isn't one of them.
"I always thought he'd be better suited to (the Preakness), but he looked pretty suited to this one (the Derby) too," Tagg said yesterday.
Yes, but is the New York-bred gelding Triple Crown material? Is any horse?
"Will we ever see one in my lifetime?" Frankel said when asked if the configuration of modern racing has made the Crown unattainable.
"I don't know, it's been 25 years since we last had one.
"I'd like to see one. Not this year though. Next year with one of my mine."