Is the Triple Crown impossible these days?
Kentucky Derby winner Orb seeks to become the first horse to do it since Affirmed 35 years ago when he enters Saturday's Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes on June 8. It's the longest break between crown winners by a decade, fueling skepticism over whether we'll ever see another truly great horse.
And that's nonsense.
Thoroughbred racing has simply suffered bad luck, quirky results and great rivalries to deny a 12th spring classics sweep. Real Quiet lost by a nose. War Emblem fell out of the starting gate. Easy Goer used home-track advantage to deny rival Sunday Silence. Alysheba received a bad ride by a Hall of Fame rider. Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin hours earlier.
"There have been horses that I thought had a chance," said Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen. "Alysheba looked like he had a great chance to win the Triple Crown. Big Brown, he looked special. It looked like he couldn't not win, but it just didn't happened. It takes a great horse and you need everything to go right. You need good luck and training. Swale might have had a chance if he hadn't worked so fast before the Preakness."
That the 1970s produced three champions -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed -- makes the subsequent drought more startling. Maybe the sport hurt itself through greed as breeders sold the best prospects in the 1980s and '90s to overspending Arab and Japanese breeders, diminishing American bloodlines. It seems U.S. racing now favors shorter races instead of the longer classics.
"The '70s was a decade of great horses, they were tough and obviously maybe back then there was still a little bit more stamina in a lot of pedigrees," Cauthen said. "But the fact is, they were just special, a special bunch of horses."
Maybe U.S. trainers are becoming too skittish to overrace horses before the Derby for the toughness needed to survive the grueling Triple Crown.
"Trainers are afraid to run horses more than once every month or 5 weeks," Cauthen said. "That seems to be the way they want to run horses. Back in the Affirmed days, I think he ran 9 or 10 times as a two-year old.
"It was just a different time and a different way of thinking about getting horses ready. I don't know if the way they do it now is better, but it certainly seems like that's how most of the trainers feel like they have to do it if they want to come and reach those races with the fresh horse."
Certainly, American racing needs a fresh approach to create a superstar. The best prospects can't be sold overseas regularly. Trainers need to toughen runners.
It's not about changing the series with more time between races. That would tarnish the crown. It's about merging luck and skill to produce greatness.
Who knows, maybe Orb is the one?