|Lookin At Lucky trainer Bob Baffert, who won his fifth Preakness Saturday, places the trophy on the head of son Bode. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)|
No such luck for horse racing
Sport continues search for Triple Crown winner
BALTIMORE — It was early Saturday evening, with darkness settling in on the barn area at Pimlico Race Course, and the activity was less intense than it had been 12 hours earlier, when it was the morning of the 135th running of the Preakness Stakes, and visions of a Triple Crown champion still seemed a possibility.
But now those visions had evaporated as Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver had become another beaten Preakness favorite after Lookin At Lucky’s redemption victory.
Once again the sport had no super horse to pin Triple Crown hopes upon. And once again, the Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of a journey no horse has been able to complete since Affirmed in 1978, had been reduced to no more than the feature race of the day.
As the horses were loaded from their barns at Pimlico back into trailers that would take them to tracks in New York, Kentucky, and California — the hubs of what has become a shrinking industry — one could feel the evaporation of the anticipation of the chase.
The big picture remained dark and gloomy for a sport in which tracks are disappearing, revenue is declining, and purses are shrinking.
Still, even if just for a day, there was a full field of good story lines.
If the Kentucky Derby marked the end of Todd Pletcher being referred to as the best trainer never to have won the Derby, the Preakness was, as trainer Bob Baffert described it, redemption for Lookin At Lucky. The horse had been anything but lucky in his still-developing 3-year-old season, as each race he had this year, including the Derby, offered a legitimate excuse as to why he had lost.
“Everybody is looking for a story line,’’ said Pletcher early in the week as people wondered whether Super Saver could make Pletcher a winner in the Preakness for the first time with the same flair he had exhibited in the Derby.
But Saturday, the story became Lookin At Lucky. There were no excuses, just simple racing, and Lookin At Lucky showed the same skills that had made him the 2-year-old champion.
Just as good a tale was that of 25-year-old jockey Martin Garcia, who five years ago was working in a delicatessen in northern California. Now he has won a Triple Crown race for a trainer who decided to switch jockeys — from veteran Garrett Gomez — in the middle of Triple Crown season.
Baffert said the decision was not personal.
“It’s tough, because Garrett is a good friend. We weren’t having any luck,’’ said Baffert after the race, in which Garcia kept Lookin At Lucky out of trouble, which allowed him to move into the winner’s circle.
Baffert had been frustrated with his horse’s performances the last few months, not so much because of what the horse did but because of what happened to him during the races, with the Derby the prime example.
Having drawn the No. 1 post on a sloppy track, Baffert sensed doom from the start. “I thought this was really a good horse to win the Kentucky Derby with,’’ said Baffert. “When he drew the No. 1 hole, I just felt an emptiness. I wanted to scratch the horse. I was sick about it. I told my wife that day, ‘I can’t feel it because I think the No. 1 hole is going to kill us.’ ’’
Coming out of the gate, Baffert’s fears became reality as Lookin At Lucky was jostled and bounced. “He thought he was in a hockey game,’’ said Baffert. “He got checked into the boards.’’
It takes luck as well as skill to win a Triple Crown race, much less three of them. It’s a tough grind for the best of horses, three races in five weeks. The normal schedule these days is perhaps one race a month, if that often. In the past 10 years, four horses have won the Derby and the Preakness — War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, and Big Brown in 2008. None won the Belmont.
This year the drama ended on the third Saturday in May. Lookin At Lucky and Super Saver will not be entered in the Belmont. What’s the point, really? A mile-and-a-half trip for a tired horse who can use the rest?
Afleet Alex was the last horse to complete a Preakness-Belmont sweep, in 2005, and Thunder Gulch was the last to put together a Derby-Belmont combination, in 1995.
Baffert said after Saturday’s race that he hadn’t even thought about Lookin At Lucky running in New York.
“I wanted to see what he did [during the race],’’ said Baffert, who now has won five Preakness Stakes, which ties him for second on the all-time list. “I wasn’t really thinking about the Belmont because the mile and a half can be pretty taxing on him for the rest of the year.’’
Lookin At Lucky will take a pass on the Belmont and resume his career later in the summer in California, where he is based. Super Saver’s handlers also will pass up the chance to run in the Belmont, which marks the first time since 2006 that neither the Derby winner nor the Preakness winner will participate in the third leg of the Crown.
“I like the Belmont. It’s a tough, long race,’’ said Baffert, who probably will rest Lookin At Lucky until the Haskell Invitational Aug. 1. “When I ran my other horses for the Triple Crown, I had to give them a break. It’s tough on them. I want to keep this horse around.’’
Pletcher said neither Super Saver nor Aikenite, who also ran in the Preakness, will compete in the Belmont. “Both horses came out well,’’ he said. “Both have already arrived at Belmont [where they are based] in good order and are settling in there.’’
“Like I said after the [Derby], we wanted to win the Preakness,’’ Pletcher said. “There’s nothing more that I would have loved to have done than to come back to Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown, but we are so happy about the way he ran in the Derby and so thankful about that, that it would be hard to be disappointed about anything he ever does from this point on.
“I think it softens the blow a bit. You can always look back and know you won the Derby, and that’s paramount. Any time you lose a race and don’t run as well as the horse is capable of, it’s disappointing, but it’s no reflection on how good of a horse he is and we’re glad to have him.’’
All of which means the sport of kings will go through another spring without a new ruler in sight.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.