The sun had barely put a streak into the night sky yesterday morning, when trainer Steve Asmussen strolled into the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course.
Asmussen, usually an intense man who follows a tight schedule, wasn't supposed to be there. He had said the night before - shortly after his brilliant 3-year-old, Curlin, had won a spectacular battle to win the 132nd Preakness by a head bob over Street Sense in a record-tying time of 1 minute, 53.46 seconds - that he would be flying back to Lexington, Ky., that night.
But here he was, looking mellow, though he sheepishly smiled and said, "I don't think that [getting mellow] will happen."
But he had altered his schedule and acknowledged that yesterday was one of the rare times he didn't actually know how many of the 210 horses he trains were running in races.
"I decided I'd rather stay here, have dinner with my family and enjoy what we had just accomplished," he said. "I wanted to prolong it."
Maybe the word for Asmussen is satisfied.
After listening to veteran horsemen telling him for weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby that Curlin was too inexperienced and too lightly raced to be a contender in that race, he now has a horse with a Triple Crown victory on his 4-1 record, whose only blemish is a third-place finish in the Derby.
If not for a bad trip at Churchill Downs, he might have won there, too. As it was, he finished a strong third and Asmussen was in a hurry to get Curlin to Baltimore.
Now, the big red horse has shown his willingness not only to put out the big effort through adversity, but Saturday also showed how he responds in a dogfight. No one is questioning his capabilities now.
"I felt an urgency to come here," he said. "I just felt for his well-being he needed to run in the Preakness.
"He had been ridden so aggressively in the Derby, I didn't want to confuse him by taking him directly to the Belmont. I needed him to know he needs to keep doing the work.
"And now it feels so satisfying that people are seeing what we saw in him from the first. ... If you're not going to run a horse like him in this race, what are you waiting for?"
Curlin, Street Sense and Hard Spun, the first three finishers, came out of the Preakness in good shape, their trainers said. Asmussen said Curlin, though, knew he had done some hard work Saturday.
"He was moving a little bit slower this morning," Asmussen said. "He was in a little more of resting mode. A little tired. Quiet. Like us. Less adjectives. Just answers."
The answer to whether the big three will now go on to the Belmont appears fairly clear to Asmussen and Larry Jones, Hard Spun's trainer. Carl Nafzger, who trains Street Sense, sounded a little more interested in the Belmont yesterday than he had Saturday night, but was still unsure.
"The Kentucky Derby establishes stud value, and the Preakness confirms it," Nafzger said. "So I lost no ground here. I got rid of the people talking about [Street Sense having a] Churchill bias. I got him off the rail and in the middle of the racetrack.
"We'll decide on Belmont in three or four days."
All three men said they would walk their horses early this week, return them to the racetrack in midweek, consult with their owners and then make a final decision.
And they all seemed intrigued by the idea that their horses could continue their rivalry in the third classic.
"They all three did race extremely good in Kentucky," Asmussen said. "They came here and still looked extremely good. Now ... I'd like to see all of us back at the racetrack in three weeks."
If these three horses do go to New York, they will have the opportunity to do something no other class of 3-year-olds has ever done.
When Curlin, Street Sense and Hard Spun, the top three finishers in the Kentucky Derby, finished in the top three at the Preakness, they did something that had only been done twice before.
In 1997, Kentucky Derby champion Silver Charm, runner-up Captain Bodgit and third-place finisher Free House also finished in the top three at the Preakness, with Captain Bodgit and Free House swapping places.
And in 1978, Affirmed, Alydar and Believe It actually mirrored their Derby performances.
But no class of 3-year-olds has finished in the top three at all three classics. The three horses coming closest were Ponder, Capot and Palestinian in 1949, when they ran 1-2-3 in the Derby, 5-1-2 in the Preakness and 2-1-3 at the Belmont.
In fact, the top three finishers in the Derby have continued on the road to the Preakness and Belmont just six times.
"It would be good for racing," Jones said, when asked whether he would like to see Curlin and Street Sense join Hard Spun in New York for the 1 1/2 -mile endurance test.
"The Belmont is out there to test the champion. I think a lot of us have evenly matched horses, and our job is to try to get our horse to improve at the right time. I think tying a classic stakes record here shows we're a good crop."
And Jones, who has seen Hard Spun finish second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, sounds excited when he thinks about going to New York.
"I think Steve and Carl feel real bad that Hard Spun hasn't had a turn at winning," he said, laughing. "But the Belmont will be so much different. We look like we could be the lone speed in that race, and I'd like to see what we could do if we were out front without someone breathing down our throat."