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Lookin At Lucky's victory in the 135th Preakness last Saturday was a small slice of thoroughbred justice. The Bob Baffert--trained colt had been a deserving and accomplished favorite in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier but was hopelessly compromised by the deadly number 1 post position, from which no horse had won the race in a full, 20-horse field in more than seven decades. Lucky struggled to finish sixth behind Super Saver in the Churchill Downs slop. "I lost the race on Wednesday [in the post position draw]," a crestfallen Baffert said on that day. "It's like I was on the one-foot line in the Super Bowl and got a 15-yard penalty."
Baffert, who won eight Triple Crown races from 1997 through 2002 but hadn't won since, showed faith in Lucky's resolve by wheeling him back at Pimlico. And he showed faith in rising jockey Martin Garcia, 25, by putting him on Lucky in place of the respected Garrett Gomez.
Baffert's gamble, Garcia's flawless ride and Lookin At Lucky's tough stretch run made the Preakness terrific entertainment and rewarded the horse that (with the retirement of Eskendereya because of a pre-Derby injury) has been consistently the best in his generation for more than a year. Yet when the Derby winner is beaten in Baltimore, however that defeat unfolds, there is a palpable letdown among racing insiders and fans, because it ensures that Affirmed will remain the last Triple Crown winner for another year, a drought that began in 1979.
This year the disappointment runs even deeper. Neither Super Saver—whose unresponsive eighth-place finish in the Preakness suggests that he might be a mud lover who benefited disproportionately from both the Derby quagmire and having Calvin Borel astride his back—nor Lookin At Lucky will run in the Belmont. It is the first time since 2006 that the third leg of the Triple Crown will be run without the Derby and Preakness winners.
Poor on-track attendance and anemic television ratings are almost a certainty for Belmont, and there will be an outcry from some in the racing community to change the format of the Triple Crown.
Veteran trainer D. Wayne Lukas has been stumping for several years to shorten the Derby from 1¼ to 1 1/8 miles, keep the Preakness at 1 3/16 miles and shorten the Belmont from 1½ miles to 1¼ miles, to allow the more fragile generations of horses being bred to endure the series. He and others have also espoused spreading the series over roughly eight weeks (early May, early June and the Fourth of July).
Any such plan, however, would rob the Triple Crown of its historical significance. It's been achieved only 11 times, a towering standard of greatness. "Somebody will [win] it," said Todd Pletcher, Super Saver's trainer. "But it's the hardest thing to do in sports."
Baffert, who has won two legs four times, doesn't want sweeping change. "No way," he wrote in a text message Sunday. But he proposed several tweaks. "They need bonus money [for horses] that run in all three races," he said. Corporate sponsors offered bonuses from 1987 through 2005, paid to any horse that won the Triple Crown or accumulated the most points in the three races. That provides incentive to keep horses racing each other through the series, rather than lying in wait to ambush a tired Derby winner in the Preakness or Belmont. (All three Triple Crown TV contracts are currently expiring. NBC holds the Derby and Preakness, ABC the Belmont. The most likely scenario is that all three races wind up on NBC, a situation that might be attractive to sponsors.)
Baffert also offered two suggestions that focused on the Derby: Limit the race to 18 starters (not the current 20), and change the post position draw to a weighted "draft" system that rewards the most accomplished. (However, in the mud and with Borel, Super Saver might have beaten Man o' War this year, regardless of what post positions were drawn by others.) Those ideas are sensibly modest.
In all, there is a flawed desperation in the racing industry that a Triple Crown will restore racing's elite status. Yet any buzz from celebrating such a champion would fade quickly. Racing needs more long-lasting solutions. The Triple Crown, by its very exclusivity, is one of the sport's rare strengths.