To sweep or not to sweep

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Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Gary Stevens probably know better than most the significance of a horse going for a sweep of the Triple Crown. They know that the potential of a sweep gives racing a welcome bit of publicity, yet they also know there are equal if not greater factors at work when 3-year-olds contest our country’s classics every spring.

The three addressed the issue in the days leading up to Saturday’s 140th running of the $1.5 million Xpressbet Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, where American Pharoah will attempt to add a second classic to his win two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby.

That trio is ideal to talk about the potential for a sweep, considering they’ve come the closest since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978.

Three times Baffert brought Derby and Preakness winners to Belmont Park seeking a sweep and three times he was denied. The first came by less than a length when Silver Charm finished second to Touch Gold in 1997, the second the most painful defeat of all when Victory Gallop beat Real Quiet by a nose on the last jump in 1998 and then a different kind of gut-wrenching loss when War Emblem stumbled at the start and finished eighth in 2002.

Baffert will send out American Pharoah and Dortmund, who finished third in the Derby. He makes no secret about his desire to sweep the Triple Crown, but conceded earlier this week that another competitive race between American Pharoah, Firing Line, Dortmund and the others was equally important.

“Now we’re here and everybody in Baltimore gets to see these top horses,” said Baffert, a five-time winner of the Preakness. “They came back, the heavy hitters, and we’re hoping for the same battle. I know it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be a great race. It’s one of those things, the fans are going to get a show and it’s going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight I’ll tell you that.”

Lukas brought Charismatic to New York with a chance to sweep in 1999 and the colt finished third while suffering a career-ending injury in the stretch.

He’s won 14 classics and spoiled his own Triple Crown chances when he beat Michael Tabor’s Derby winner Thunder Gulch with Timber Country for Overbrook Farm, Gainesway and Robert and Beverly Lewis at the 1995 Preakness. Thunder Gulch finished third that day – so Timber Country wasn’t a complete spoiler – but one was left to wonder after he bounced back to win the Belmont.

“Bob said it very eloquently. They’re so difficult to win. You do the best you can, you’re representing two facets, two different clients, you just have to go out there and do the best and hope one of them gets it done,” Lukas said of running two horses for separate owners. “Like Bob said, you won’t be disappointed if you upset the Derby winner because there’s a lot of races down the line and it is a contest. It is a race. You can’t mail it in. He’s in a great position. I’d like to trade places with him. In fact I tried to.”

Lukas will send out Mr. Z, a colt he purchased privately by Calumet Farm from owner Ahmed Zayat’s Zayat Stables earlier this week. Mr. Z finished 13th in the Derby and is a longshot in the Preakness.

“It’ll be like Bob said, a great race,” Lukas said. “It’s got a nice blend of horses and there really are some talented horses.”

Stevens rides one of those talents, Sunland Derby winner and Derby runner-up Firing Line. The son of Line of David is seeking to become just the third Derby runner-up to turn the tables and win in Baltimore since 1960. Summer Squall in 1990 and Prairie Bayou in 1993 are the two Derby runner-ups to win the Preakness.

He might have the most unique perspective of all as the rider on both ends of the spectrum, first as the rider of Silver Charm and then as the spoiler aboard Victory Gallop. Stevens, who also rode Thunder Gulch in the 1995 Triple Crown, said the Derby was memorable for him and that he hoped to turn the tables Saturday.

“It was a great show; a great race to be a part of. It was one of the (most fun) horse races I’ve ever competed in,” he said. “We came out on the short end of the stick in the Derby but we’re going to try to turn the tables Saturday. We’re here to put on a show and that show is the tight finishes and I’m sure you guys are going to see another exciting race on the weekend.”