ELMONT, N.Y. — On the Belmont Park track Saturday evening and in their respective shedrows Sunday morning, trainers Shug McGaughey and Todd Pletcher got fresh reminders as to just how taxing it is for 3-year-old runners to endure in Thoroughbred racing's most demanding races over a five week span.
In McGaughey's barn, Kentucky Derby winner Orb was said to be as weary as his conditioner has seen him following his third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.
By contrast, the level of energy Palace Malice displayed to Pletcher the morning after his 31/4-length victory in the final leg of the Triple Crown was just as telling a statement regarding the toll of the classics.
Along with halting Orb's attempt to restore his dimmed luster following his fourth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes, Palace Malice's surprise Belmont Stakes triumph continued a recent trend some believe is helping keep the 35-year-long drought between Triple Crown winners alive and kicking.
Since Commendable in 2000 became the first horse to win the Belmont without having a race in between after starting in the Kentucky Derby, six more horses have triumphed in the 11/2-mile test after skipping the Preakness, including the newly minted classic winner himself. Champion filly Rags to Riches, who gave Pletcher his first Belmont victory in 2007, won after taking the Kentucky Oaks five weeks earlier.
Where McGaughey said Orb will likely not start again until the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 24, Pletcher said Palace Malice would prep for that same spot via the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes on July 27 if he could harness the fresh-feeling chestnut colt for that long.
"Honestly, the way he's feeling this morning, I don't know that I am going to be able to give him much time off," Pletcher said. "He is a remarkable horse, he bounces out of his races really well.
"I don't think that's a coincidence at all, that the horse who won the Belmont ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness," he added. "There's no doubt, that's what makes it so hard for the horse that wins the Derby. If you want to win the Triple Crown, you've got to go (to the Derby). If you don't win the Derby and you want to win the Belmont, to me it makes a lot of sense to sit out the middle one."
Considering Preakness winner Oxbow and Orb competed in all three legs and were still second and third, respectively, in the Belmont, there is still the case for exceptional sophomores being able to hold strong form throughout the Triple Crown grind.
When McGaughey won the 1989 Belmont Stakes with future Hall of Famer Easy Goer, he saw a horse who emerged from that five-week stretch arguably stronger than he was prior. All that just reinforces to McGaughey how unique the talent level needs to be for such resilience to manifest.
"Maybe I did (underestimate the strain of the Triple Crown)," McGaughey said. "Last time I went through it, Easy Goer came out of the Belmont better than he went in probably but he might have been a bit of a different animal too.
"One of the things you have to think about with Oxbow and Orb, they weren't last and they went through them all. But it's a tough game. To get them ready and take them over there, that's a lot of racing."
Citing Orb's five straight wins prior to his loss in the Preakness, McGaughey wants to see what kind of rebound the son of Malibu Moon could have with a break of his own.
"I haven't lost any confidence in what we've got," McGaughey said. "It's going to be interesting for me to see now that I can let Orb down a little bit, see how he reacts to the whole thing and you'll hopefully see how good he is."
A wet-fast Belmont surface that was playing toward speed was among the factors that further wore out Orb and aided Palace Malice en route to his second career win.
Shortly after climbing off Oxbow, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens zeroed in on what he believed was working against both his mount and the Derby winner.
"I've said time and again, people are planning specifically for these particular jewels of the Triple Crown. As long as this keeps happening, you're not going to see a Triple Crown winner," Stevens said. "Even if Orb would have been going for a Triple Crown today, I'm very doubtful he would have been able to pull it off because of the fresh horses."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.