NEW YORK - Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and ... Saarland?
John Ward Jr., the astute Kentucky horseman, believes the next Triple Crown winner will come in an "off year," a year when the 3-year-olds aiming for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are not deep in talent. He believes this could be the year.
"I think most of our 3-year-olds are very, very late developing," said Ward, who trained Monarchos, last year's Kentucky Derby winner, and saddles Booklet in today's Blue Grass Stakes. "Probably the sixth-best horse of last year would be the standout favorite this year.
"I could see a late-developing horse come on and win the Derby and keep improving and go on through the series. So, yeah, the Triple Crown is probably easier to do this year than it has been any time in the recent decade."
No horse has swept the demanding three-race series since Affirmed in 1978, although seven have captured two of the three since 1991. Today, in the final major preps for the Derby, 25 3-year-olds will attempt to keep their Triple Crown hopes alive.
Eight will grace the field for the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct in Queens. Six will compete in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. And 11 will go to the post in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
Finally, some clarity may begin to break through the clouds obscuring this Triple Crown season. The lack of a standout so far has attracted many dreamers to the hunt.
"A lot of guys that maybe two years ago said they didn't have a Derby horse sized up what was There, and all of a sudden, they had a Derby horse," Ward said. "But I think this weekend might show you the horse who's got the ability to put all the pieces together."
No horse is better bred for the task than Saarland. The respected trainer Shug McGaughey will saddle Saarland for the Wood Memorial, in which the colt is projected as the favorite by the Daily Racing Form and the second choice by the track oddsmaker.
The striking bay colt is the son of Unbridled, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, and the four-time, Grade I-winning mare Versailles Treaty, winner of the Alabama Stakes at 1 1/4 miles and second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs.
Saarland should have the genes assuring stamina and a fondness for Churchill Downs' quirky surface.
"When he fills out, he's going to be an awesome horse," McGaughey said of Saarland. "He's 17 hands. He's big."
Size and immaturity impeded him last year, the trainer said. Saarland finished fourth in the Champagne Stakes and eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile before concluding his 2-year-old season with a neck victory in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
The Wood will be Saarland's second race of the year. McGaughey planned on running him in the Fountain of Youth Stakes but changed his mind when the colt didn't seem to care for Gulfstream Park's deep surface. Then McGaughey tried without success to find an allowance race for the colt.
Finally, the trainer shipped Saarland back to New York and ran him off works in the one-mile Gotham Stakes four weeks ago at Aqueduct. Saarland finished a respectable second behind the mile specialist Mayakovsky.
"I was pleased with what I saw that day," McGaughey said. "The Gotham got him to the Wood, and hopefully the Wood gets him to the Derby."
McGaughey said he expects Saarland to run well in the Wood, but not necessarily to win it. The object is to prepare the colt for a peak performance in three weeks in the Derby.
"Hopefully, the Wood Memorial is not going to be his best race," McGaughey said.
NOTES: The lone Maryland hope in today's Derby preps is Outstander, winner of the Horatius Stakes last month at Laurel Park. Rodney Jenkins trains and Mark Johnston rides the Florida-bred son of Outflanker in the Arkansas Derby.
The Wood Memorial (post time 4:15 p.m.) will be televised on ESPN in an hour broadcast beginning at 3:30. The Blue Grass (post time 5:15 p.m.) will be televised by NBC in a 90-minute broadcast beginning at 4:30. The Arkansas Derby (post time 6:45 p.m.) will not be shown on national TV.
Bettors can wager on the winners of the three races in the national Big 3 Pick 3. Since its debut six years ago, the bet has paid off from $30.80 to $3,594.