Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin knows in his heart that he and owner William Warren made the right call.
For all the confidence McLaughlin has in Charitable Man, he knew if he had rushed the graded stakes-winning colt into the Kentucky Derby he might jeopardize the talent that has wowed him since last fall.
But there are moments when McLaughlin looks at the smooth-moving son of Lemon Drop Kid and gets hit with a case of the what-might-have-beens when thinking about the first Saturday of May.
Which is why he is counting on the 141st running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday to reinforce his original decision.
After Charitable Man won the Grade II Futurity in his second career start last September, his connections said he could be among the best of his generation. But Charitable Man suffered a saucer fracture in his left shin last winter and was only able to make one Derby prep race, finishing seventh in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Had McLaughlin and Warren pushed the issue, Charitable Man could have been in the Kentucky Derby gate because he had enough graded stakes earnings to make the field.
Weeks later, McLaughlin doesn't regret making the decision to hold the colt out — even if the sight of seeing Mine That Bird win the Derby at odds of 50-to-1 caused some initial second thoughts.
"I won't look back and say (I let a Derby get away) but you do think about it briefly," McLaughlin said. "Being back in three weeks would have been hard on our horse, and I feel like we did the right thing. Hopefully we'll be smiling Saturday knowing we did the right thing.
"But I'll tell you, I'll never pass the Derby again when I have a horse with graded earnings. It's going to take a lot more to make me not run."
With the exception of his disappointing effort over the Polytrack at Keeneland, Charitable Man has given McLaughlin — who saddled Jazil to victory in the 2006 Belmont Stakes — every reason to feel like he could have another classic winner in his barn.
Bred in Virginia by Edward Evans, Charitable Man is unbeaten in three starts over the dirt and is 2-for-2 at Belmont Park, including his 33/4-length triumph in the Grade II, 11⁄8-mile Peter Pan Stakes on May 9.
Though the Belmont's 11/2-mile distance is the great unknown factor for every contender in the field, Charitable Man has bloodlines in his favor; his sire captured the 1999 running of the race.
"We feel we've got the horse to beat," McLaughlin said after Charitable Man worked a half mile in :49 at Belmont on Sunday. "Mine That Bird we have a lot of respect for, Dunkirk, and other horses, but I wouldn't trade places with anyone.
"We've got a fresh horse, he's 2-for-2 on this racetrack, just won impressively here four weeks ago and he couldn't be training any better. We're very confident."
Charitable Man's connections aren't the only ones thinking this late-comer to the Triple Crown party could waltz off the blanket of carnations.
In each of his three triumphs, Charitable Man has displayed good tactical speed, going wire-to-wire in his maiden win, coming off the pace in the Futurity, and sitting a stalking trip in the Peter Pan.
Now that the owners of Preakness Stakes winner Rachel Alexandra have announced they will not send the front-running filly to the Belmont, some fear the race now sets up for Charitable Man to have his way with the early fractions.
"At this point, Charitable Man is going to be on an uncontested, easy lead," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will send out Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk in the Belmont. "That's my biggest concern, aside from the fact he's probably the horse to beat to begin with, and now he's got a pace advantage.
"It's going to be hard to catch a quality horse like Charitable Man if he gets a half in :49."