What we've learned from this Triple Crown

Updated: June 10, 2005, 10:50 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

From the 20 horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby only two are left standing. By the time we get to the Belmont Stakes, this brutal war of attrition also known as the Triple Crown will have claimed everyone but Afleet Alex and Giacomo. Why not them? Because their trainers were smart enough to get them to the Kentucky Derby the old fashioned way.

This was the year when a large group of otherwise very smart trainers laughed at conventional wisdom, ignored years of history and brought their horses to the Derby without proper preparation. In was set in stone: to win the Derby, a horse had to have at least three preps, must have run within four weeks of the race and must have had at least one start as a 2-year-old. Virtually every Kentucky Derby winner since World War II had fit the winning prescription.

That didn't bother Bobby Frankel, Nick Zito, Craig Dollase and some others who chose to bring their horses into the Derby off light schedules. Seven of the 20 horses in the field didn't fit one rule or another. That list includes Kentucky Derby favorite and Kentucky Derby bust Bellamy Road, who had just two preps for the race and wasn't able to handle the heat of the Derby.

Of the non-qualifying group, only Closing Argument ran well. He was second and, who knows, maybe he would have won had trainer Kiaran McLaughlin been able to tighten the screws a little more before the race. And it appears that the Derby took a lot out of him. He was not nearly the same horse in the Preakness, where he finished ninth, beaten 26 3/4 lengths.

Of Nick Zito's five Derby starters, threeBellamy Road, Noble Causeway and High Flyviolated a rule. Is it any coincidence that Zito's Derby Day was a disaster?

A Derby novice, trainer Tim Ritchey understood that he needed to get the proper foundation into his horse to have him prosper in the Derby and survive the entire Triple Crown series. He took the unusual step of running Afleet Alex in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes so that his schedule would include three preps and he worked him hard in the mornings. Afleet Alex often goes to the track twice a day, an unheard of training scenario in this day and age when most horses are handled with kid gloves.

"I really had a plan to have three races under this horse," Ritchey said. "I think that's very necessary to get to the Derby. I also like the fact the Arkansas Derby is three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. I think that's the perfect setup for the Kentucky Derby. You come off a mile-and-an-eighth race and three weeks later go a mile and a quarter. I think that has definitely helped and I think it has got my horse and Giacomo to a great level of fitness which has made them recover better off all those races. Then they can go forward to the next spot."

Giacomo has also held up very well. He had the traditional three preps and completed his pre-Derby schedule in the Santa Anita Derby, run four weeks before the Kentucky Derby. By Derby Day, he was fit, ready and had the foundation to keep going to the next two legs.

"I can only speak for Giacomo and what we did with him, but he had a very good foundation on him," trainer John Shirreffs said. "Prior to the Kentucky Derby, he ran a mile and an eighth and a mile and a sixteenth and a mile and an eighth. So, he had a really strong foundation of distance races."

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness can beat up any horse. Maybe Giacomo and/or Afleet Alex will finally wear down in the Belmont. But the smart money says that they won't. Both have held up very well so far and show no signs of tailing off. Having been properly prepared for the very difficult task that is the Triple Crown, they have so far been rock solid.

It will be interesting to see if anyone has learned a lesson from this year's Triple Crown. The on going trend is that most good horses race as little as possible and have as much time as possible in between races. That might work in some instances, but not in the rugged and grueling Kentucky Derby, where a horse clearly has to be battle tested coming in. Will we see another batch of horses in the 2006 Kentucky Derby who have been handled like the Faberge eggs coming in? Probably we will, and they will be doomed to failure.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com