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Triple Crown becomes tale of rest rather than racing

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Triple Crown becomes tale of rest rather than racing
Rich Strike, ridden by Sonny Leon, wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 7, 2022, but skipped the Preakness Stakes. Photo by Mark Abraham/UPI | License Photo

May 23 (UPI) -- Triple Crown trail? This year, it's more like a Triple Crown maze, with lots of rest stops along the way.

First, Rich Strike snuck into the Kentucky Derby field at the last possible moment, then snuck up the rail in the final furlong to win at 80-1 odds.

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A Triple Crown champ in the making? No. He quickly was ruled out of the second jewel of the series, Saturday's Preakness Stakes.

That left Epicenter, runner-up as the favorite in the Derby, as the Preakness favorite. Redemption? No. He got going late and finished second again, this time to Early Voting, who had skipped the Derby to rest up for the Preakness.

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So surely there will be some resolution as the Derby Winner, the Preakness winner and the two-time also-ran hook up in the final leg of the series, the Belmont Stakes on June 11? No.

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Rich Strike is, in fact, targeting the Belmont. But that dance is not on the card of either Epicenter or Early Voting.

So, after months of preliminaries and five weeks of intense racing, the Triple Crown won't settle anything and, even should Rich Strike come away with two victories, the ultimate results of the 3-year-old season will have to wait -- perhaps all the way to the Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Keeneland.

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What's happening to the three-race series that once saw memorable head-to-head battles from start to finish? Two-thirds done, this year's Triple Crown has turned out to be more about rest and relaxation than actual competition.

Trainer Chad Brown intentionally held Early Voting out of the Derby so he'd be fresh for the Preakness and beyond. And Rich Strike's connections bypassed the Preakness to make sure their colt would be sufficiently recovered to tackle the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont.

Brown said in the aftermath of the Preakness that skipping the Derby was an easy decision for Early Voting, who had only three previous starts.

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"When you start participating in the Kentucky Derby, you realize what a tough race it is with 20 horses," said Brown, who has yet to win the race.

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"As the trainer, you have to deal with the aftermath when it doesn't work out. Sometimes it's not pretty. Those horses need time physically or mentally, and it can really cost a good part of your 3-year-old year if you swing and miss."

The next major target for Early Voting, Brown said, will be the Grade I Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 27, with something in between.

"We'll get him back to Belmont, assess him, train him a bit, and then start to map out a campaign that hopefully leads us to the Midsummer Derby," Brown said, using the common nickname for the Travers.

On the flip side of the benefits of rest, Epicenter's owner, Ron Winchell, speculated a lack of it after the Derby preps and the Derby itself might have dulled his colt for the Preakness effort.

"I don't think he benefited from the two weeks [between races]," Winchell said. "He looked a little flat. The quarter going in 24-and-1 and he's way back after that. He didn't seem like the same horse. That's just what I'm seeing on the surface."

With that in mind, he said the Belmont would be "a stretch. He had six weeks between the Louisiana Derby and the [Kentucky] Derby, and that did him well. I think there might have been five weeks between the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby and that did him well. Just looking at how he came back fresh, that seems to be the recipe at the moment."

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And, bear in mind that only three of the 20 Kentucky Derby runners went on to Baltimore for the Preakness. And the number going from the Preakness to the Belmont could be just two as third-place finisher Creative Minister and fifth-placed Skippylongstocking have yet to be ruled out.

One more corner in the maze.

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