As the steel-gray Silver Charm nears his date with racing history -- Saturday's Belmont Stakes and a possible Triple Crown -- his trainer, Bob Baffert, declares: "Unless there's a horse in that race with super powers, I can't see [Silver Charm] getting beat in the Belmont."
Baffert might do well to listen to Bud Delp, the Maryland trainer who 18 years ago sat in the same catbird seat as Baffert. Delp's Spectacular Bid won the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He was one win away -- as the 3-10 favorite in the Belmont -- from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner in history.
"I told my crew the day before the race, the Triple Crown's ours," Delp said last week outside his barn at Laurel Park. "All we've got to do is walk him over to the paddock, and the Triple Crown's ours."
But according to a familiar adage of the 1990s that applies to horse racing any decade, stuff happens.
Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont, and then his young Maryland jockey rode him like the inexperienced free spirit that he was. And Spectacular Bid, a "cinch" in the Belmont, finished third.
Eleven horses have achieved racing immortality by sweeping the Triple Crown -- but only three in the half century since Citation in 1948.
"You can't overstate the difficulty of winning a Triple Crown," said Joe Hirsch, the nation's preeminent racing writer.
Horses barely 3 years old -- and still learning their way around a racetrack -- must win three intensely competitive races in five weeks at different distances at different tracks.
They must avoid injuries and illness -- even an ill-timed cough or fever -- and overcome blanket scrutiny, constant distractions and then, once on the track, blasts of noise from the crowd and desperate challenges from horses and their jockeys.
"On top of everything else," Hirsch said, "you've got to have a loof luck."
Since Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1970s, no 3-year-old has won the Triple Crown -- although five, counting Silver Charm, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Hirsch said the 18-year drought since Affirmed in '78 is largely coincidental.
"Horses are like grapes," Hirsch said. "Vintage years come along haphazardly. It's nature."
But it's also, Hirsch acknowledged, changing economics.
In the past two or three decades, top stallions have been sold to rich breeders overseas, depriving this country of potential Triple Crown prospects. Also, an increase in American commercial breeding has weakened the breed, said the New York trainer John Veitch.
PTC When you breed horses to sell, Veitch said, you're most concerned with appearance. But when you breed them to race -- as did Calumet Farm, for which Veitch trained the great Alydar (second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races) -- you're more concerned with durability.
"Horses raised by people who race them are allowed to roughhouse in the fields, run together and get bruised and nicked," Veitch said. "They become hardened athletes.
"But if you're raising a horse to sell, you want it shiny and bright and eye-appealing -- like an apple or tomato. You don't want it with lumps and bruises. They affect the price."
Whether the lack of recent Triple Crown winners is because of exporting stallions, pampering weanlings or harvesting sour foals and grapes, one thing is certain.
"With every near-miss there's a story," Hirsch said.
And there may be no better story than the glaring near-miss of Spectacular Bid.
Possibly the greatest horse never to win the Triple Crown, Spectacular Bid became a footnote to history: one of 14 horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but not the Belmont.
Owned by Marylanders Teresa and Harry Meyerhoff and Harry's son Tom, Spectacular Bid was an Eclipse Award winner each of his three racing seasons: champion male at 2 and 3, champion older horse and Horse of the Year at 4.
Of 30 races, he won 26, of which 23 were stakes. He set eight track records, five of which still stand. His 1 minute, 57 4/5 seconds for 1 1/4 miles in the 1980 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita Park remains the fastest ever run on dirt.
"That's why I say he's the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle," Delp said.
That refrain became familiar to racing fans as the Maryland trainer and his 19-year-old jockey from Dundalk, Ronnie Franklin, showcased the charcoal-gray colt from coast to coast.
In the Kentucky Derby, Delp said, "I was a cinch."
At odds of 3-5, Spectacular Bid won by 2 3/4 lengths.
In the Preakness, Delp said, "I was gushing with confidence."
At odds of 1-10, Spectacular Bid won by 5 1/2 lengths. It was his 12th straight victory.
In the Belmont, the Triple Crown was "ours" until Delp arrived at the barn the morning of the race. As he stepped out of his track-supplied limousine, Bid's groom, Herman Hall, said: "Boss, this horse is lame."