BALTIMORE — Every year immediately following the Kentucky Derby, horse-racing experts and fans try to predict whether there's a legitimate chance for a Triple Crown.
It's elusive. It has become the rarest of feats. There's a reason that no horse has done it since Affirmed in 1978 — it's hard to do.
So as Animal Kingdom starts the Preakness Stakes on Saturday evening in an attempt to complete the second step, it's worth wondering: What does it take to make a Triple Crown winner in 2011 and beyond?
Everyone's got a theory, though many believe Animal Kingdom has the right blend of ingredients to do it this year. It's a mix of racing skills, pedigree and some intangible qualities that are even harder to judge in horses than in human athletes.
"It takes a very consistent horse, a horse that's improving every race," said Kathy Ritvo, who trains Mucho Macho Man. "You have to improve every race. You can't stay at the same level. You have to step it up each leg."
Everyone around the barn at Pimlico this week has said roughly the same thing: If Animal Kingdom pulls off in the Preakness what he did at Churchill Downs two weeks earlier, he's going to be darn near impossible to beat.
One racing expert, Ray Paulick, who publishes the Paulick Report, doesn't believe Animal Kingdom has what it takes to be a Triple Crown-winner, basing his opinion on how Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat turned the trick with early speed or "push-button acceleration."
"A horse has to have, to me at least, some sort of really sudden acceleration or really good tactical early speed," Paulick said. "I don't see that with Animal Kingdom. I see him as more of a one-dimensional grinder and strong finisher."
Animal Kingdom finished so strong in the Derby — the second-best final quarter of the race in history behind only Secretariat — that the owner and trainers of other Preakness entrants call him "the horse to beat."
Of course, that was only one race. And to win the Triple Crown, as Dialed In's trainer, Nick Zito, quipped: "Well, he's got to win all three, that's for sure."
Zito said pedigree and consistency play a big role. Animal Kingdom looked at first to be bred as a turf horse; he hadn't run on dirt until the Derby and was treated as an afterthought until winning the race as a 21-1 long shot. But the Triple Crown talk has made Graham Motion's horse the Preakness favorite, 2-1 on the morning line.
"The Derby winner, he gets all the respect and that's the way it should be," said Bob Baffert, who trains Midnight Interlude.
As for Motion and Team Valor International's Barry Irwin, they don't even want to consider the Triple Crown. There's obviously another big hurdle to clear at the Belmont Stakes even if Animal Kingdom manages to finish first in this field of 14 Saturday.
"I don't really think about it," Motion said. "If I think about it, I usually catch myself and think of something else."
But that doesn't stop everyone else from thinking about it — and legitimately. Even though Animal Kingdom may not be a historic star like Secretariat, trainer Todd Pletcher said fewer starts are becoming the norm and different types of training techniques could be effective in preparing a Triple Crown winner.
"We see so little of so many of these horses today that anybody that tells you, 'Yeah, I saw him as the next great horse' is just pulling your leg," Paulick said. "Because you just don't know."
Those who are trying to prevent him from being the "next great horse," are willing to concede that it's possible. Animal Kingdom has only raced five times in his career, with three victories and two second-place finishes.
"I don't think anybody's taking Animal Kingdom lightly. I'm not, because Bob Baffert isn't, Steve Asmussen isn't," said George Bolton, co-owner of Astrology. "When the trainers are telling you, 'This horse could be the real, real deal,' and he could be that good on turf, dirt and [Polytrack] just like Big Brown was good on all three surfaces, there's no reason he couldn't be a really nice horse."
Still, you can go down the list of really nice horses over the past 27 years and find the likes of Charismatic, Real Quiet, Alysheba and Spectacular Bid — some of the best who came up short.
That's because, to capture the Triple Crown, you need a couple of things that don't always come together — two things horse racing fans hope are present this spring for Animal Kingdom.
"A good horse," Baffert said, "And you need a whole lotta luck."
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