BALTIMORE (AP) — Two of the most exciting minutes in sports were followed by one of the flattest. Sadly, it's getting to be a habit.
A Triple Crown never seemed more mythical than it did the moment Shackleford barreled across the finish line at the Preakness late Saturday afternoon with Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom right on his tail. Everyone who had a piece of the tall chestnut colt, or had his number printed on a ticket stuck deep into a pocket, had plenty of reason to celebrate. Everyone else in the racket simply shrugged.
For the third year in a row, the racing circus will pack up at Pimlico and head for New York and the Belmont with only so much on the line. Considering the purse, prestige and eventual breeding-shed appointments that await the winner, calling the final leg of the Triple Crown a consolation prize would be unfair. But to a sport that needs a superstar in the worst way, and hasn't seen one since Affirmed swept it biggest series in 1978, it guaranteed another year without one.
"It's a difficult task," trainer Dale Romans said afterward, and he should know.
In the thoroughbred lexicon, the Louisville, Ky.-based trainer is known as a "hardboot," a real pro who learns how to stretch every buck and do more with less, churning out a steady stream of contenders to fill out the race-day cards at tracks large and small all over the country.
He doesn't have an organization like rivals Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, who get the first-choice yearlings from wealthy owners and syndicates and might have as many as 200 horses in training at any time, coast to coast. But without guys like Romans the business would be in even worse shape. Because he gets his hands on potential champions only so often, he appreciates them more than most trainers.
"Three different distances at three different racetracks over five weeks. It takes a super horse to accomplish it," Romans said. "I think that's why it's one of the great things in sports.
"It will happen again," he added, "only when a super horse comes along."
Only 11 horses turned the trick all of last century. The same number have arrived at the Belmont with the same chance Affirmed had 33 summers ago and failed to seal the deal. Horse players have blamed the drought on deeper fields, as well as evolving breeding science and training regimens. Counterintuitive as it sounds, many think 3-year-old thoroughbreds were stouter back in the day, when they competed often as youngsters, than the lightly raced runners today.
Either way, the search for the next super horse will consume the industry for at least another year. It will continue in whispers among grooms sweeping out stalls, between trainers glued to the rail as prospects get put through their paces, in owners' boxes atop the grandstands and in the jockey rooms below, just before the riders climb up into the saddle on that day's mounts.
"Shoot, we won the Derby and we just got beat in the Preakness," said Graham Motion, the Englishman who trains Animal Kingdom. "I would love to win a Triple Crown, as much for me as for everybody else. There is so much pressure to do that, because it would be good 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 a Triple Crown," he added, "you'd be thrilled that he ran so well."
Motion acknowledged before the Preakness that he wouldn't bring a horse back to the racetrack in two weeks, save for one of the classics. It's the same reason he's already pointing Animal Kingdom toward the Belmont.
"He's had two really tough races, but if he comes out of this one the way he came out of the Derby," the trainer said very matter-of-factly, "I don't know why we wouldn't take a shot."
The last horse to have a shot at the Triple was Big Brown in 2008. Kent Desormeaux, who was aboard the big, overpowering favorite, had lost another a decade earlier aboard Real Quiet. Something he said that afternoon about that second try is the closest thing to an answer the sport will have until next spring.
"These occasions," the jockey said then, staring at his hands folded in front of him, "have only made me realize how awesome those other horses must have been."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org