LOUISVILLE — The backstretch at Churchill Downs the Wednesday morning before the Kentucky Derby was surprisingly quiet. The pocket of curious Kentuckians who had been prowling the grounds since dawn, hoping to get a glimpse of a Derby horse, were gone.
Most cameras from the Louisville television stations left, and writers from around the country scurried up to the Churchill Downs press box.
Todd Pletcher stood outside his barn and, for once, could talk about anything but horse racing. It was more like a put-up-your-feet bull session you might hear at any sports bar on a slow weekday night.
The question: What's the toughest accomplishment in sports year after year after year?
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Pletcher: Fifty-six-game hitting streak, referring to Joe DiMaggio's record from 1941.
The argument ensued.
It can happen every year, Pletcher said, because someone goes up to bat every day.
But the subject always comes back to horse racing. Hands down, especially here during this week, the topic turns to how hard it is to win the Triple Crown. The sport hasn't had a horse win the coveted three races — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — since 1978 when Affirmed won all three in an epic battle with Alydar.
Since then, 11 horses have won the Derby and Preakness but failed in the Belmont, and four others lost the Derby but then won the other two.
"It is just so tough to do. . . it has to rank up there as one of the toughest things to do in all of sports every year," said Pletcher, who won his first Kentucky Derby last week with Super Saver.
Why is it so tough? There have been 11 horses in the history of the sport to win the crown, and three of them came in the 1970s: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed. Then, nothing.
The most recent horse to win the first two legs and then lose in the Belmont was Big Brown in 2008. Big Brown dominated the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and then fell apart in the Belmont. He was eased in the stretch and finished last. Prior to the race, he had been treated for a three-inch quarter crack in his left front hoof.
"I just don't know what happened," his trainer, Rick Dutrow, said. "There are just too many confusing things there with the start of the (Belmont) and the (hot) weather that day. He was carried out on the track ... there are just so many things. I'm not going to blame him. The horse went into that race good and he didn't show no signs that things had caught up with him, you know?"
Big Brown was considered a lock by so many to win the Crown after taking the Derby by 43/4 lengths and then blowing away the Preakness field by 51/4 lengths. He was the fourth horse of the decade — joining War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003) and Smarty Jones (2004) — to get agonizingly close to the club.
Horses today, some trainers will tell you, are bred for speed and not for endurance, which was the norm back in the 1970s and before. Others say horses today have a more grueling road to the Triple Crown races, with several prep races before the Derby.
Or maybe these horses just aren't as good as horses from yesterday.
"The races are really packed closely," Dutrow said of the Triple Crown, which is run over a five-week period. "It's just so tough on them. At some point, it's got to catch up."
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert would have made his name legendary with just a little racing luck. Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) all won the first two legs and then lost in the Belmont; Point Given (2001) lost the Derby and then romped in the second and third legs.
"For some reason, it's just harder now," Baffert said. "There seems to be more involvement in the final leg."
Maybe there are horsemen who wait in the weeds with a fresh horse and they hope to thwart history. If that's the case, it has worked.
"It will happen again," Baffert promised of a Triple Crown.