In the moments after Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom came up a few feet short of capturing the second jewel of the Triple Crown on Saturday, trainer Graham Motion expressed no regret. His horse put on another great show, even if it did not keep its date with racing history.
"He ran great,'' Motion said. "It's hard to be disappointed when he ran so well. It was perfect, except that we didn't win."
No one should be surprised that the gentlemanly Motion would put Animal Kingdom's heart-stopping — and heartbreaking — performance in such a positive perspective, and no one should be surprised if the rest of us find it much easier to be disappointed that he was unable to overtake Shackleford down the stretch this time.
The horse racing world has been waiting for the next Triple Crown winner for more than three decades, and Animal Kingdom — with his dramatic close at Churchill Downs and another strong comeback on Saturday — was a half-length from making the amazing transformation from a 20-1 Derby long shot to a Belmont favorite with a chance to be considered one of the greatest horses ever.
Motion doesn't need anybody to tell him that, but he refused to let the weight of a troubled horse racing industry spoil what has been an amazing adventure that may still have a chapter or two to go.
"Shoot, we won the Derby and we just got beat in the Preakness," he said. "I would love to win a Triple Crown, as much for me as for the game. But it wasn't meant to be. The horse ran a great race. He did nothing wrong. I think the horse ran huge. If it wasn't for the fact that it was the Triple Crown, you'd be thrilled that he ran so well."
Jockey John Velazquez brought the horse from 13th place (out of 14 horses) at the first turn to stage a dramatic final sprint that resembled the one that carried Animal Kingdom past the new Preakness winner two weeks ago. The difference this time may have been the fact that the Preakness is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby.
"I think another sixteenth of a mile would have made a difference today,'' Motion said.
And that may still make a difference at the Belmont — a grueling 1 ½-mile marathon that could determine which of these two horses is the year's best 3-year-old. Both Motion and Shackleford trainer Dale Romans gave every indication that they would break their Triple Crown tie at Belmont Park in three weeks.
"Hopefully, if he comes back good, it would be a fun thing to do,'' Motion said. "It wouldn't be the same as running for the Triple Crown, but I think it would be a neat thing to do."
Romans also is hopeful that Shackleford bounces back from Saturday's race well enough to set up a rubber match with Animal Kingdom, but he was willing to put the potential duel in more global terms.
"It will be good for horse racing to have another good rivalry,'' he said. "I said earlier this week, and some people argued with me, that I believe the future is going to show that this is a pretty good crop of 3-year-olds.
"I think everybody's been knocking them a little bit when we lost Uncle Mo. I think that's shown up in the Classics. I think we have good 3-year-olds, and hopefully, we'll have a good rivalry with Animal Kingdom when it comes down to the wire."
That would be a nice consolation prize, but nothing to compare with the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed turned racing's hallowed hat-trick in 1978. Horse racing needs more heroes to recapture the imagination — and attention — of the general sports public, if that's even possible at this point.
"There's a lot of pressure on this situation,'' Motion said, "but racing needs more than just a Triple Crown winner to fix its woes. There's a reason it hasn't been done in so long. It takes a horse that can handle it all.
"I've tried not to get too focused on the Triple Crown the last two weeks, because it's an incredibly hard thing to do."
Of course, the rest of us have thought of nothing else, but there's always next year.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on "The Week in Review" on Friday's at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and WBAL.com.