They have been America's two most dominant trainers in this century, and nobody else is close. Handicappers who are allergic to favorites constantly try to beat the horses of Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, which in the long run is a losing proposition.
Baffert, 62, has 11 victories in Triple Crown events, has produced 11 divisional champions and is sixth all-time in purse earnings. Pletcher, 47, is No. 1 on the money list and has seven Eclipse statuettes as leading trainer, four more than Baffert. Pletcher rules Belmont Park, Saratoga and Gulfstream Park. Baffert is king at Del Mar and Santa Anita.
Strangely, these heavyweight champions never have had a rivalry, particularly on the three Saturdays in spring when the world is watching. Not once have they finished 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or the Belmont Stakes. When one won, the other never finished in the money. When one suffered a gut-wrenching defeat, somebody else did the dirty work.
That could change in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
Pletcher's highly regarded Materiality and the improving Madefromlucky will try to ruin the Triple Crown bid of Baffert's 3-5 morning-line favorite American Pharoah, who drew post 5 on Wednesday. It's business, not personal, and if casual onlookers see Pletcher as a villain, so be it.
Two-time Belmont winner John Velazquez rides Materiality, the 6-1 third choice in a field of eight. "For every owner, trainer and jockey," Velazquez said, "winning a race like this is a dream come true."
Your dream, not somebody else's, always comes first. A Triple Crown would be a boost for racing, but trainers and riders are out for themselves. It's always about them, not the big picture. As Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains 5-1 second choice Frosted, said: "If I can't win it, I hope American Pharoah wins it."
Rest assured that if a trainer knocks off Pharoah, he'll sleep well Saturday night. Guilt over winning a $1.5 million race of worldwide significance? Please.
This is Baffert's fourth attempt to end a Triple Crown drought that has lasted 37 years. He suffered two brutal beats in the Belmont, when Silver Charm was denied in the final 50 yards in 1997 and Real Quiet fell short by a nose in 1998.
Baffert spoke briefly with Billy Turner, trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, at the draw at Rockefeller Center. "Fourth time, this is it for me," Baffert said. "Next time I'll stay home."
Pletcher has two Belmont victories to Baffert's one, but the "Test of the Champion" has made him suffer, too. Pletcher has been second four times, with Bluegrass Cat (2006), Dunkirk (2009), Stay Thirsty (2011) and Commissioner last year. Commissioner's loss by a nose to Tonalist hurt the most.
"Commissioner was as tough a beat as you will take in any race, much less a classic," Pletcher said. "To essentially lead every step of the way but the last one is tough.
"Stay Thirsty's beat was pretty tough, too, and Dunkirk ran very well and led most of the way. Overall, our results in the Belmont have been very good, but we're kind of a length away from having won four or five of these."
Winning his third would alleviate some frustration from his 1-for-43 Derby record, including Materiality's sixth-place finish after a poor start. Pletcher thinks Materiality's tactical speed complements the closing punch of Madefromlucky, who will try to match Tonalist's Peter Pan Stakes-Belmont double.
"I like the fact Materiality will break outside American Pharoah," Pletcher said. "We'll be on the outside going into the first turn and I hope we'll have an honest pace."
Baffert said he's concerned only about his own horse.
"He's looking great, but we've still got to get around there," he said. "If he's great, he'll get it done."