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The most hopeful time on the Triple Crown trail

FORT WORTH, Texas — An old man, Don Benge explained, needs to find some excitement in life to keep going. A young man, too. In fact, everybody needs excitement, just to break up the quotidian. Maybe that's why there's a Triple Crown. It's one good reason anyway.

In racing, nothing compares to the Triple Crown for excitement — the preparation and the run-up, the horses' rapid improvement, the winnowing out of the pretenders from the contenders, and then, before a throng of 150,000 or so, there's the most turbulent moment in sports, the Kentucky Derby. It also happens to be sport's greatest coming-out party, for in just 2 minutes, some horse will become internationally famous. No, nothing is like it; nothing is even close.

It's the sort of excitement that will enable an old man to keep going. A young man, too. In fact, just about everybody.

The road to the Triple Crown assumes a more serious tone Saturday, with the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in South Florida and the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. They'll raise the excitement up a notch, especially for Benge, an 81-year-old retired businessman in Waxahachie, Texas.

He's counting on his Maximus Ruler to establish his Triple Crown bona fides in the Lecomte. Maximus Ruler has raced only twice and never in a stakes. But he has finished powerfully in his races and defeated good horses, and he has done so while still learning.

In his second start, Maximus Ruler won an allowance race at Churchill Downs, where he dragged jockey Francisco Torres to the lead and then cruised through the stretch. His head high, Maximus Ruler seemed to be looking around, waiting for his companions, just like a big kid. After that, Benge fielded several inquiries from persons interested in buying the colt.

But, he said, he has been searching many years for this opportunity, for a horse that has Triple Crown possibilities. And so, he said, wouldn't it be foolish, after owning horses for more than 40 years, to sell the one he had been searching for all this time?

Maximus Ruler is typical. Years ago, if in January you looked for the top Triple Crown candidates, the search would have been easy: They would be the most accomplished 2-year-olds.

But with horses racing less frequently as juveniles these days and with synthetic surfaces tossing another variable into the equation, the search has to include lightly raced youngsters with more potential than accomplishment.

Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert probably will generate the most excitement along the way to the Triple Crown.

Baffert trains the most accomplished horse in the group, Lookin at Lucky, the champion 2-year-old of 2009.

Baffert also has four unbeaten colts — Tiz Chrome, Conveyance, Concord Point and Bulldogger — pointed in the general direction of Kentucky.

Like Baffert, Pletcher has so many good 3-year-olds that he'll probably have to travel to keep them separated. In the Holy Bull, Pletcher will send out Aikenite, a reliable, hard-trying colt who ran well in the tough company last year.

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