It is no big deal that the Kentucky Derby winner won't be showing up for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday in New York. It happens all the time, most recently in 2012, when I'll Have Another nursed his bum ankle back at the barn while Union Rags and Paynter put on a show.
Derby winners Super Saver, Street Sense, Barbaro, Fusaichi Pegasus, Grindstone and Lil E. Tee were among the Belmont missing over the past quarter-century -- for reasons from trite to tragic. So were Spend a Buck, Sunny's Halo, Dust Commander and even Dancer's Image, who was disqualified from a first-place finish in the Derby on a dicey drug bust and from third in the Preakness for interference. Him you can't blame for staying away.
Nyquist and his blood count have been out of the Belmont for more than two weeks. That has provided plenty of time for the transition to Preakness winner Exaggerator as the 3-year-old of choice, although the large herd entered against him indicates there are still those who need convincing.
If Exaggerator can win the Belmont, he would join some fine company. With or without the presence of the Derby winner, adding the Belmont to a Preakness victory is no mean feat.
The list includes a treasure trove of familiar names over the past century, beginning appropriately with Man o' War, who did not run in the 1920 Derby but beat eight others in the Preakness, then won a two-horse Belmont by 20 lengths.
Later on, there were Native Dancer, Nashua and Damascus, towering figures who lost the Derby before making the Preakness-Belmont double their launch point for Horse of the Year. More recently, the roster has been enhanced by Point Given, also a Horse of the Year, and Alfeet Alex, easily voted 3-year-old champion male.
For the record, the others of the era who had to settle for the Preakness and Belmont were Tabasco Cat, Hansel, Risen Star, Little Current, Capot, Bimelech and Pillory. (There were five in the 19th century, but they won't be on the test.)
Their reasons for not being Triple Crown winners are part of Kentucky Derby lore, from the rough Derby trips of Risen Star and Little Current, to the mystifying flops of Hansel and Bimelech. Pillory gets a pass, since in 1922 the Derby and Preakness were run on the same day. Go figure.
At some point in the discussion of such "double crown" winners, a typical racetrack tautology kicks in, going something like, "If they were good enough to win the Triple Crown, they would have won the Triple Crown." Hard to argue.
Feelings are always raw when the Derby-Preakness winner loses the Belmont and all those hope-filled fans go home unhappy. But when a 3-year-old separates cleanly from the class in the Preakness and the Belmont after losing the Derby, there is cold comfort, as memories of Louisville are renewed in the rueful spirit of what might have been.
Gary Stevens can tell you all about it.
Stevens has had a rocky romance with the Belmont from the start. His first ride was in 1988 aboard Kentucky Derby heroine Winning Colors, who was fresh from her bumping match with archrival Forty Niner in the Preakness, when they both were beaten handily by Risen Star. Winning Colors went winging early to lead the Belmont field down the backstretch, but her race was over by the far turn, and Stevens eased her home in last, far behind Risen Star.
In 1995, Stevens won his first Belmont aboard Thunder Gulch, the Derby winner who ran third in the Preakness. In the heartbreak of 1997, Stevens and Silver Charm had their Triple Crown dreams dashed in the Belmont by Touch Gold. Then, one year later, it was Stevens and Victory Gallop who denied the Triple Crown to Real Quiet and Kent Desormeaux.
"Believe me, I know how Kent feels," Stevens said, in the postrace understatement of the day.
Along the way, Stevens had no particular Belmont joy with the likes of Casual Lies, Scrimshaw or Chekhov, although he did hit the board with Oxbow and Sunday Break. Last year he had a distant view of American Pharoah aboard Tale of Verve.
In terms of the Belmont, however, Stevens always will hold Point Given closest to his soul. Their apparently untroubled defeat as firm favorites in the 2001 Kentucky Derby was rendered even more confusing by the colt's cool dominance of the Preakness and subsequent 12¼-length parade in the Belmont.
Once the job was done and the immediate thrill had worn off, reality hit with a vengeance. Winning the Belmont by a dozen lengths, Stevens must have had plenty of time to replay Point Given's Derby in his head.
"I totally blocked it out during the race," Stevens said. "There was such a focus to win the Belmont, a race of such prestige. It carries its own weight. But not winning the Triple Crown with Point Given still hurts to this day.
"In my mind, he's maybe the best horse to come that close and not win the Triple Crown," he added. "But there are some things you cannot change and just have to accept as part of the game."
It remains to be seen if the Exaggerator camp will have to swallow that reality at the end of a Belmont Stakes that he should not lose. Stevens will be on the sideline for this one, but he envisions a very uncomplicated trip for Kent Desormeaux and his colt.
"You know how it is going into these big races," Stevens said. "Everyone's trying to build a case for how you beat the favorite. I would think Kent will do a lot like I did with Point Given -- get him in a rhythm and keep him out of trouble. He's going to be forwardly placed, and he'll put him in a place where he can't lose. Anyway, that's what I would do."