BALTIMORE - Here we go again.
For the 14th time since Affirmed swept the 3-year-old classics in 1978, there's the possibility of a Triple Crown. Will it be the same sad story, or will the script finally have a happy ending?
American Pharoah will come to Long Island with a chance to become thoroughbred racing's 12th immortal. His seven-length victory over Tale of Verve on Saturday in Pimlico's 140th Preakness Stakes guaranteed that the Belmont Stakes on June 6 will be a riveting event.
"He's just an incredible horse, what he does is just amazing," trainer Bob Baffert said. "I'm so emotional right now.
"I don't even want to think about [the Triple Crown] right now, I just want to enjoy this."
The Big Horse Park in Elmont will be filled -- the New York Racing Association capped the crowd at 90,000 -- and for a few weeks, mainstream media will chronicle the sport obsessively.
For a record fourth time, Baffert will have the opportunity to run the table. Winning three races at different distances -- 1 1/4 miles, 1 3/16 miles and 1 1/2 miles -- was challenging enough back when fields were smaller, horses were less fragile and stamina was valued above speed. Doing it now verges on the impossible.
Baffert went down in the 1997 Belmont with Silver Charm, caught in the final 50 yards by Touch Gold. A year later, Baffert endured perhaps the most brutal near-miss in sports history when a surging Victory Gallop nosed out Real Quiet. In 2002, everything fell apart at the start for War Emblem, a need-to-lead type who had no chance after stumbling badly leaving the gate.
"I think it's getting harder and harder now," Baffert said recently. "I think the times have changed. You run against more horses.
"I've been there three times and I came up short, but I really don't think about it now. To me, it's like if it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
So many standouts who looked unbeatable lost anyway in the Belmont, starting with Spectacular Bid in 1979. The Bid is considered among the top 50 horses of all time, and the best he could do was third. On paper, Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008) looked invincible, and it didn't happen for them, either.
Steve Cauthen was only 18 when he rode Affirmed in those three thrillers against Alydar that will be celebrated forever as The Rivalry. He often says he doesn't want to be the last jockey to pull off the sweep, and that he doesn't expect to be.
"I think a horse will win the Triple Crown, and this could be the year," Cauthen said before the Derby. "It looks like a really good crop of 3-year-olds. But I thought Big Brown could do it, and he had a bad day. It's so hard to find a horse who's that good and can overcome all the obstacles."
Among the final ones that American Pharoah must hurdle are fresh horses. He'll face challengers who flopped in the Derby and were given five weeks off to await the grueling "Test of the Champion."
Todd Pletcher, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner, runs America's biggest and winningest stable. He's won the Belmont twice and will be waiting for Pharoah with graded-stakes winners Carpe Diem, Materiality and Madefromlucky. Besides Pletcher's trio, Derby also-rans Frosted, Keen Ice, Mubtaahij and Frammento are among those being pointed for the marathon, according to NYRA spokesman Jenny Kellner.
A year ago, Tonalist became the ninth consecutive Belmont winner to have bypassed the Preakness. Minutes after California Chrome finished fourth, his co-owner Steve Coburn spewed a nationally televised rant against trainers who won't run horses in all three legs of the series, calling them cowards. Sour grapes, because that's the way the game is played, and they're not going to change the rules.
"I think it goes without saying how difficult and demanding it is to win the Triple Crown," Pletcher said, "especially in today's world where guys, including us, are willing to sit out the Preakness and wait for the Belmont . . . I'm sure it will be done again. It just will take a super horse to do it."
Is American Pharoah the one? We'll see.