BALTIMORE — Bob Baffert was still smiling and laughing the morning after winning his first Triple Crown race in eight years.
As Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky prepared to walk onto a van leaving Pimlico on Sunday, Baffert petted the bay colt on the neck and told him, "Thank you so much."
Horse racing, however, is not quite so buoyant — the sport remains without a Triple Crown champion since 1978. And the winners of this year's first two Triple Crown races — Super Saver in the Kentucky Derby and Lookin At Lucky — are skipping the Belmont.
It's another big letdown for a sport struggling to capture wide interest outside the major races. Its two biggest stars are Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, and the leading ladies have yet to meet on the track.
"Thank God for Zenyatta and Rachel," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "They're keeping the interest pretty good."
In 1978, Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become the 11th Triple Crown winner. Since then, 11 horses have won the first two legs before being shut out in the Belmont, most recently Big Brown in 2008.
Super Saver was the only horse in position this year for a Triple try after winning the Derby. His usually low-key jockey Calvin Borel made a rare boast that the colt would sweep the grueling five-week Triple Crown series, but it fell flat in the Preakness. Super Saver faded to sixth as the favorite on Saturday after pressing the early pace.
"We would have loved to have come here and win the Preakness and go to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "That would be the ultimate challenge."
Super Saver is still going to New York, but only to return to his stall at Belmont Park. He won't run in the 1 1/2-mile Triple Crown finale on June 5, with Pletcher planning to give the colt a rest. His ultimate target is the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November.
Baffert said Lookin At Lucky will also take a pass on the Belmont and return to Southern California to freshen up. His next start may be the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on Aug. 1.
"I want to keep this horse around," the Hall of Fame trainer said.
Their absences, combined with no Triple try in play, leaves the Belmont with little drama. Baffert will be there, though, saying he plans to saddle Game On Dude, partly owned by Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre. First Dude finished second in the Preakness, and is likely a Belmont starter.
"It'll be the Battle of the Dudes," Baffert said.
That's not a matchup likely to draw TV ratings or the casual sports fan.
Even if Super Saver had won the Preakness to keep his bid for a sweep alive, most of the attention was focused on Borel and Pletcher, not the horse. He had yet to intrigue the public, unlike Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, whose failed Triple bids drew fan letters from schoolchildren.
Like long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans, racing will have to wait till next year.
The 32-year drought between Triple Crown winners is the longest since the three races became a series in the 1930s. The previous longest gap was 25 years between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973.
Some thought the Triple Crown was too easy in the 1970s when Secretariat led the way, followed by Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed a year later.
Lukas, whose 1999 Triple try with Charismatic was thwarted in the Belmont, said having another Triple Crown champion would provide a short-term boost.
"It's not a cure-all," he said. "It'll last a couple weeks and then be yesterday's news. The sports world is pretty calloused. There's so many things fans can turn to."
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