California Chrome's run to immortality lacks only a celebrated rivalry

Exercise rider Willie Delgado loves to share intimate Exercise rider Willie Delgado loves to share intimate moments with the Triple Crown contestant California Chrome who is getting a bath after his morning run at Belmont Racetrack in Elmont May 29, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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When the last Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing was won by Affirmed in 1978, the prerace Belmont Stakes buzz was not so much about the daunting possibility of a Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont sweep. That had been completed twice in the previous six years -- no big story.

Instead, the juice was provided by the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry, which got better and closer each time Affirmed prevailed -- by 1 1/2 lengths, a neck and a head.

On Saturday, it's all about whether California Chrome can end a 36-year Triple Crown drought. There could be a spoiler hiding in the weeds among Chrome's 10 challengers, but there is no true rival to speak of. Besides California Chrome, only Ride On Curlin (seventh and second) and General a Rod (11th and fourth) are attempting all three races in the Triple Crown campaign.

Nothing like Majestic Prince and Arts And Letters in 1969, or even Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989. In both of those cases, the one-two finish in the Derby and Preakness dramatically was reversed in the Belmont.

"I guess maybe it's been since Easy Goer [a son of Alydar, by the way] and Sunday Silence since we'd had a good rivalry," said two-time Belmont-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "But so far, California Chrome has won convincingly, so there's no rivalry, really."

A limited mid-series rivalry appeared to be brewing in 2009 when Rachel Alexandra -- after skipping the Derby -- left Derby champ Mine That Bird in second at the Preakness. But Rachel Alexandra stayed away from a Belmont rubber match and Mine That Bird slipped to third place.

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"It would be great if we had an Affirmed and Alydar rivalry again," said D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer experiencing a rare absence from the Belmont this year. "But you don't see horses make all three events anymore. You don't see two quality horses.

"That's because it's not a three-race series anymore. With the points system [initiated last year as a qualifier for the Derby], to get through those prep races is so competitive, you have to bear down so hard in those two, three races before the Derby.

"It's really a five-race series," Lukas said. "The Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby [among the Kentucky Derby prep events] are top races. Now, for a horse to get in the Derby, if he doesn't win, it's not worth the risk to go two weeks later in the Preakness."

Because the Triple Crown classics are limited to 3-year-olds -- still awfully young in a horse's career -- injury is fairly common. Horses that, early in the year, look like strong candidates to win at least one Triple Crown race regularly disappear.

"If you go back and see how horses were rated in January," Lukas said, "and look at the ones running [Saturday], it's a completely different group."

A list of pre-Derby favorites from five months ago included Cairo Prince, Honor Code, Candy Boy, Tapiture, Top Billing, Strong Mandate, Commissioner, Shared Belief, Bayern and Samraat. Of those, only Commissioner (a Pletcher horse who did not run in either the Derby or Preakness) and Samraat (fifth in the Derby, no Preakness) are in Saturday's field.

To Pletcher: "With the Triple Crown being at stake, I don't think you need a rivalry per se. I think there's enough excitement just to see if he can win."

But the Affirmed-Alydar duels certainly were fun.

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