05/17/2009 11:00PM

Breaking with tradition


After two-thirds of the 2009 Triple Crown has left most of us in awe, can there be any doubt that the popular three-race series bears almost no resemblance to what we knew about it a decade ago?

Since 1999, we have seen a long list of standardized training and handicapping notions become meaningless in the wake of so many results that would have been inconceivable a few years earlier.

In 1999, Charismatic, a $62,500 claimer in February and a nonthreatening fourth in the Santa Anita Derby in April, suddenly won the Lexington Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in a sizzling month of unprecedented improvement for a Triple Crown race winner.

In 2000, the lightly raced and sparingly trained Fusaichi Pegasus dominated the Kentucky Derby to set a tone that has been refined to an art form by modern-day trainers who believe that less can be a whole lot more.

In 2002, War Emblem was bought by the Saudi Arabian-based Thoroughbred Corp. after the son of Our Emblem scored a fast wire-to-wire victory in the Illinois Derby, which never previously had served as a winning Kentucky Derby prep race.

In 2003, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred Kentucky Derby winner, as well as the first gelding to win the race since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, breaking a pair of suspect Derby no-no's in one fell swoop. Following War Emblem's lead from the prior year, Funny Cide also won the Preakness even more impressively before losing the Belmont Stakes. Meanwhile, Empire Maker, second in Funny Cide's Kentucky Derby, went on to win the Belmont without competing in the Preakness, a rare winning pattern for a Derby participant. In numerous previous attempts that included several betting favorites in the Belmont, the five-week break from a Kentucky Derby try invariably led to defeat. But after Empire Maker's Belmont win in 2003, Birdstone won the Belmont after an eighth in the Kentucky Derby, and Jazil did the same after his Derby fourth in 2006.

In 2005, we saw 50-1 shot Giacomo win the Derby without a previous victory during the year, including an out-of-the-money performance in the Santa Anita Derby. Closing Argument, who finished second at 71-1, had only two prep races for that Derby to underscore the increasing potency of such a light training regimen. The following year, Barbaro became the first horse in decades to win the Kentucky Derby after a five-week layoff.

In 2007, Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger used only two prep races for Street Sense, this after Nafzger had employed four well-spaced prep races to set up Unbridled for his 1990 Kentucky Derby victory. This also marked the first time that the previous season's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner had advanced his form as a 3-year-old to win the demanding 10-furlong Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. Even an "old school" trainer like Nafzger had embraced less-taxing Derby training methods.

It also is worth remembering that Curlin did not race as a 2-year-old and beat Street Sense in the Preakness in his fifth start. Moreover, the filly Rags to Riches used an easy win in the Kentucky Oaks as a prep to outgame Curlin in their memorable 2007 Belmont Stakes. Two years later, Rags to Riches's Belmont victory would provide the new owners of Rachel Alexandra ample reason to buck public criticism for Rachel's 2009 Preakness bid.

Frankly, until 2007, fillies were sparingly matched against male horses in Triple Crown races out of dubious fears. Now Rachel Alexandra's winning Preakness stands alongside Rags to Riches and the ill-fated Eight Belles's gallant second to Big Brown in the 2008 Derby as proof that top-notch fillies can compete successfully in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Fact is, they were the only fillies in this decade given the opportunity.

Last year, Big Brown pushed the lightly raced, lightly trained approach to a new level, beginning a spare two-race pre-Derby campaign with an allowance win at Gulfstream Park, March 5 and concluding with the Florida Derby on March 29. Yet, Big Brown not only won the Kentucky Derby in his fourth start, he did it from post 20 of 20 starters, to crush the idea that such a wide post was a major obstacle for a superior Derby horse. To underscore this point, Rachel Alexandra won her Preakness last weekend from post 13 of 13.

Following Big Brown's success in the 2008 Derby and Preakness, we should remember that a recurring hoof injury interfered with his training and left him vulnerable to Da' Tara's upset score in the Belmont. While that shocking result might not have been as dramatic as Mine That Bird's 50-1 victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, both upset wins were in sync with the changes that have occurred in this decade.

For one thing, Triple Crown race winners no longer have to be prepared in any predesigned manner. In Mine That Bird's case he had just two prep races - at Sunland Park in New Mexico - far removed from the usual stops on the Triple Crown chase. For another, 2008 Belmont winner Da' Tara raced in the Barbaro Stakes on Preakness Day at Pimlico, a relatively minor race that was successfully used by Sarava as a springboard to his 70-1 upset in the 2002 Belmont, when the race was known as the Sir Barton. That stakes was not offered at Pimlico this year despite its brief but potent history as a Belmont Stakes prep.

The inclusion of synthetic tracks into the Triple Crown prep race equation also has changed the game.

This year, many top handicappers chose to eliminate any horse that had earned his Derby ticket via good performances on a synthetic track. Other players, myself included, saw the way Papa Clem and I Want Revenge moved from the synthetic tracks in Southern California to strong performances in New York, Louisiana and Arkansas as a sign to accept their form with minimal reservations.

In Pioneerof the Nile's case, his second-place finish in the Derby confirmed an ability to handle any racing surface, but realistically he was no match for the streaking and vastly improved Mine That Bird. In the Preakness, Pioneerof the Nile faded from contention, completely losing his form in his eighth straight Grade 1 or Grade 2 stakes since October, and his fifth of this season. Frankly, I made a handicapping mistake in the Preakness believing that Pioneerof the Nile would run as well or improve upon his Derby effort.

Surely, it could have been reasoned that no horse in the modern era can hold his form through such an extended campaign deep into the Triple Crown series. Where some may have expected Mine That Bird to lose his edge or bounce after his surprisingly strong Derby, others wondered if the filly would react negatively to the short 15-day break from the Oaks to the Preakness. Now with the results on the board, the modern trends of Triple Crown competition say that lightly raced, ultra-high-class horses can trump those doubts even when the approach to a Triple Crown race is highly unorthodox.

The undeniable conclusion is that less-sterling contenders such as Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man, Papa Clem and so many others missed their best shot to beat the freshly minted Mine That Bird in Louisville. In Baltimore, even Mine That Bird faced a big problem - Rachel Alexandra, a superior talent who was given a perfect tactical ride by Calvin Borel, who has a chance to sweep the Triple Crown.