TODD PLETCHER trains Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming. Chad Brown trains Preakness winner Cloud Computing. Both horses are stabled at Belmont Park, site of Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
Pletcher will be running two horses in the race. Brown will be running one. None of them will be named Always Dreaming or Cloud Computing.
The Belmont Stakes is one of only three American classics, but, like the Preakness, the caliber of its field is now ruled by modern American training methods. Every trainer wants to run his horse in the Derby. Few want to run their horse two weeks later in the Preakness. Fewer still want to run their horse in all three Triple Crown legs.
Only two horses were going to be entered for all three this year - Classic Empire and Lookin at Lee. Classic Empire was declared out Wednesday morning with a hoof abscess. So, now there is only one.
If Always Dreaming had won the Preakness instead of running a tired eighth, the colt obviously would be going for the Triple Crown in the Belmont. It was clear as the horse faded through the field at Pimlico, he would not be running in the Belmont.
Pletcher, the most successful American trainer of the 21st century, rarely runs his top horses more than once every five or six weeks. The Triple Crown really does not fit his training style, which is why he has never won more than one Triple Crown race in a year and never won the Preakness at all.
Brown, whose powerful New York stable is the equal of Pletcher's in quality if not in quantity, is from the Bobby Frankel school of training - the more time between races the better. So he never really considered Cloud Computing for the Belmont.
These methods are probably good for the seemingly less durable modern horse, but definitely not good for the Triple Crown series, which is best with rivalries such as Secretariat-Sham (1973), Affirmed-Alydar (1978), Alysheba-Bet Twice (1987) and Easy Goer-Sunday Silence (1989).
So Pletcher will run Tapwrit (sixth in the Derby) and Patch (14th in the Derby) in the Belmont with five weeks' rest. Brown will run Twisted Tom, who will be seven weeks between races.
As Jay Privman pointed out this week in the Daily Racing Form, everything really changed in the Triple Crown as the 21st century began. In 2000, Commendable finished 17th in the Derby, passed the Preakness and won the Belmont Stakes. That began a trend that shows no sign of abating.
In the last 17 Belmont Stakes, nine winners ran after last racing on Derby weekend, eight from the Derby and the filly Rags to Riches, who won the Kentucky Oaks. This year, five Derby also-rans passed the Preakness and will run in the Belmont: Tapwrit, Patch, Gormley, Irish War Cry and J. Boys Echo.
The 1-2 finishers in the 2016 Belmont Stakes, Creator and Destin, were two of five Derby-to-Belmont horses. It was four in 2014 and 2015 and seven in 2013.
Pletcher's two Belmont winners, Rags to Riches and Palace Malice, fit the pattern. So did Bluegrass Cat, Dunkirk, Stay Thirsty and Destin, all of whom finished second for Pletcher.
As Privman pointed out, this is very much a 21st-century phenomenon. It is no coincidence that it began just as the training methods at the top end of the sport changed.
In the 1980s, only seven horses went the Derby-Belmont route. None won. It was 10 in the 1990s with no winners.
In the 2000s, 28 horses went Derby to Belmont. After Saturday, it will be 35 Derby-Belmont horses in the 2010s.
Whereas the quality of races such as the Preakness and Belmont have been hurt by the tight schedule, the same training methods have vaulted a race such as the Pennsylvania Derby to Grade I status. An afterthought on Labor Day, the $1 million race at Parx has blown up since going to late September (helped by a bonus for any of the Triple Crown winners), a month after the Travers at Saratoga and six weeks before the Breeders' Cup. It is why Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome came to Parx in 2014 and Derby winner Nyquist and Preakness winner Exaggerator were there last year.
I love the Triple Crown as it is. I'd also love it if they would spread the races out more to attract better fields in all three races.
The argument for not changing the spacing is that it would alter the essence of the series that Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed won in the 1970s and make it easier. It would not be the same, but I think that it would be more difficult, because each of the three races, the three that get the most national attention every year, would have the very best horses.
The 2017 Belmont Stakes will be a terrific race, as always, but nobody can make the case that the very best 3-year-olds will be running. And that is unfortunate.