These days, as soon as a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, fans immediately start calculating whether this is the one who could overcome all obstacles and break the Triple Crown drought, which dates to 1979.
As you may have noticed, those obstacles tend to arise more in the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont Stakes than in the Preakness. Ten horses have won the Crown's first two jewels during the drought only to lose in the Belmont. Only two horses have won the first and third jewels but faltered in the Preakness.
For a good horse, the Preakness has served as a valedictory more than an obstacle, and while there are many explanations, let's focus on a key one that has surfaced in the past decade: the absence of the best horses who didn't win the Kentucky Derby.
The Preakness used to shape up almost every year as a Derby rematch, but fewer owners and trainers are running their 3-year-olds in all three races, fearing burnout. The Preakness, coming so soon after the Derby, is getting skipped more often.
Remember Empire Maker? After he ran second as the Derby favorite in 2003, his trainer, Bobby Frankel, skipped Baltimore, pointed the colt for the Belmont and won it, spoiling Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid.
Since Silver Charm, Free House and Captain Bodgit battled it out so memorably in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness a decade ago, fewer dangerous Derby losers have come back for more at Pimlico.
But things might be different this year with Curlin among the eight starters scheduled to run Saturday at Pimlico against Street Sense, the latest Kentucky Derby winner.
Street Sense appears to have a legitimate shot at going all the way, but among the many obstacles that could deny him, Curlin's presence in the Preakness ranks high.
Hard Spun, the Derby runner-up, is also back for more, as is Circular Quay, a horse that has been off the board only twice in eight races, most recently in the Derby, where he was sixth. But Curlin, a lightly raced colt who ran third at Churchill Downs, has been turning horsemen's heads all spring.
Curlin is a big, powerful chestnut who exudes winning qualities; baseball scouts wouldn't hesitate to label him a five-tool prospect. He sold for just $57,000 as a yearling, and sore shins kept him from competing as a 2-year-old, but when he finally made it to the track earlier this year, he won his first race so impressively that within 48 hours his owner sold a majority interest in him for $3.5 million.
Curlin seemingly validated the sale by winning his next two races, including the Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths, to enter the Derby unbeaten. His talents were so obvious he was among the betting favorites despite his extreme inexperience.
Bob Baffert, the trainer who has won three Derbys and four Preaknesses, said before the Derby "we all tried to buy that horse [earlier this year] but we were too slow and didn't have enough money." Asked what he thought about trainer Todd Pletcher's chances of winning the Derby with five starters, Baffert replied, "I would rather have Curlin than any five horses."
As it turned out, a bad draw and a 20-horse field gave Curlin trouble in the Derby; he got caught in traffic coming out of the No. 2 post and trailed 13 horses entering the second turn before finding his stride and rallying to finish third. He wasn't gaining on Street Sense or Hard Spun at the end, but he passed a lot of horses.
Baffert's comment proved prescient when Pletcher's horses placed sixth, eighth, ninth, 18th and 20th, with Circular Quay the best. That colt's late entry here is another positive development for the caliber of this year's Preakness.
But it is Curlin's presence that gives the race a dose of star power.
"That's a very gifted horse," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said yesterday.
Curlin's connections didn't deliberate for long before deciding to run in the Preakness. Trainer Steve Asmussen expressed interest on the morning after the Derby, and a commitment soon followed.
"We've got an outstanding 3-year-old that is very healthy at an extremely important time of the year, with an opportunity of winning a classic," Asmussen said.
The colt shipped from Kentucky to Baltimore yesterday and will gallop at Pimlico for the first time today. His goal is to follow the examples of Afleet Alex and Point Given, the most recent horses to lose in Kentucky and then rebound to win the Preakness.
It happened a lot more between 1985 and 1997, when no fewer than nine Preakness winners stopped Triple Crown bids here after losing in the Derby. Curlin looms as a potential throwback to that no-so-distant era, and a real threat to Street Sense.