Is Super Saver a Triple threat?

Derby winner looks to become first to win all three races since 1978

May 14, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Days before Todd Pletcher won his first Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, thus becoming the only trainer with a shot at the elusive Triple Crown this year, a handful of reporters stood outside his barn at Churchill Downs and asked him whether he could think of a comparable feat in another sport.

Pletcher considered the question for a few seconds before settling on an answer.

"Probably [ Joe DiMaggio's] 56-game hitting streak," he said. "But even then, after the Derby, only one horse has a chance at doing it. I think it's got to rank up there as one of the toughest things in sports."

Pletcher didn't know at the time that the Triple Crown burden would be his this year, but thanks to a smooth trip by Super Saver and a perfect ride by jockey Calvin Borel, the collective hopes of the horse racing world are his to bear this year. Super Saver, a 5-2 favorite in the Preakness, is considered a 7-1 choice to win both Saturday's race and the Belmont Stakes.

It has been 32 years since Affirmed became the last horse to win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and for whatever reason, no one has been able to crack the code since. There have been horses who looked like they might pull it off — Real Quiet, War Emblem, Smarty Jones and Big Brown to name a few — but no horse has been able to close the deal. Eight times in the past 13 years a horse has gone to the Belmont having won the first two legs and come up short.

It has become such a tall order, Borel even raised a few eyebrows after the Derby victory when he predicted that Super Saver was going to be the next horse to make it happen. But it was also seen as one more example of how badly the industry wants it to happen.

Each year, theories abound as to why it hasn't occurred since 1978. Is there not enough recovery time between the Derby and the Preakness? Should horses be required to enter all three events or none at all? Has breeding for speed ruined the stamina and toughness of thoroughbreds? Ask five trainers and you're likely to get five different answers. Some, like D.Wayne Lukas, believe changes such as a limited field or a longer break between the Derby and Preakness would be good for the industry. Others, like Bob Baffert, think the setup is perfect the way it is.

Pletcher, though he rarely runs his horses with less than a month of rest, concedes that he's somewhat conflicted about changing a setup that essentially has been unchanged for more than a century.

"I'm a traditionalist," Pletcher said. "If we changed the Triple Crown and spread the races out more — a month between the Derby and Preakness, and then five weeks to the Belmont — you could argue that more horses would be able to participate. And the winner is probably going to have a better chance of repeating. I think it would probably generate more Triple Crown winners that way. But it wouldn't be the same Triple Crown. It wouldn't be nearly as prestigious."

But Lukas, Pletcher's mentor, has said for years he would welcome a change — either to the schedule or the field.

"Did the 3-point shot ruin basketball?" Lukas said this week when asked about Pletcher's comments.

Lukas, 74, is tied for the most Triple Crown race victories in history with 13 and has had his share of near misses. In 1995, he won all three races but did it with two horses: Thunder Gulch, who won the Derby and the Belmont, and Timber Country, who won the Preakness.

"It's become increasingly hard to do it because back when horses were pulling it off in the 1950s and '60s, if you look at the history books, they were racing in 10-, 12-, 13-horse fields," Lukas said. "Well, it becomes a lot easier to do it when, first of all, you've got all the breeding in the country, and secondly, you only have to beat five other horses. That's a lot different than getting to the Derby on graded earnings, beating 20 horses, then coming to the Preakness two weeks later and trying to beat 14 more. The game is not the same."

Super Saver, interestingly enough, is a distant descendant of two Triple Crown winners — Secretariat and Seattle Slew — a detail that some handicappers have pointed to when arguing that the horse could be more than a mudder. He's not particularly big or imposing — he's muscular, though skinnier than a lot of thoroughbreds — but he has almost no wasted motion.

Lukas said he was in awe one day last week at Churchill Downs when Pletcher walked past with Super Saver after a hard workout and the horse wasn't even breathing hard.

"Now I'm just watching him go by in my saddle horse," Lukas said. "But I know Todd is training him hard because he was with me 12 years. I've watched him come off the track after a really tough gallop, and he doesn't even dilate his nostrils. He's got a shot at this."

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