As the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets gave way to a Flo Rida concert, the 2019 Triple Crown faded into the sunset, leaving behind the series' messiest controversy in about 50 years and a slew of unanswered questions.
For the third time in four years, three horses were victorious in the three Triple Crown stops, yet comparisons with past years were hardly apropos on the morning of June 9 at Belmont Park.
The day before, when Tracy Farmer's homebred Sir Winston closed out the classics by winning the Belmont Stakes at 10.20-1 odds and giving trainer Mark Casse wins in both the "Test of the Champion" and the Preakness Stakes in a three-week span, the final leg in the series only underscored the unusual nature of the past five weeks.
"It's been an odd Triple Crown for many, many reasons," trainer Todd Pletcher said.
Topping the list of oddities was the disqualification of Gary and Mary West's Maximum Security from first to 17th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, the first time the Churchill Downs stewards took that kind of action in the race's 145-year history.
Yet there was also a "no mas" element to the Triple Crown after the first three horses across the wire in the Kentucky Derby did not run in either of the two remaining jewels. Instead of horses taking turns beating each other, the past five weeks featured three different sets of horses squaring off with a variety of results, ending in a slew of unfinished business both on the racetrack and in the courtroom, where a lawsuit over the Kentucky Derby disqualification has been initiated.
In the final analysis, only Juddmonte Farms' Tacitus turned in a strong finish in more than one Triple Crown race, and he failed to win any of them for trainer Bill Mott, being elevated to third in the Kentucky Derby and finishing second by a length to Sir Winston in the Belmont Stakes.
"I believe Tacitus ran really well in both Triple Crown races. I think he showed up," said Mott, who also trains Country House, the 3-year-old who was declared the winner of the Kentucky Derby but became sick afterward and is not expected to run until the Saratoga Race Course season begins in July. "It's always nice for racing to have a marquee horse, but there's no such thing right now. There's no American Pharoah."
Even the Belmont Stakes, which seemed like a vehicle for Gary Barber's Preakness Stakes winner War of Will to motor to the front of the division, came up empty when the Casse-trained son of War Front faded to ninth in a field 10 as the 3.65-1 second choice in the wagering.
Of the 19 horses who competed in the Kentucky Derby, just seven of them raced in one other classic. While the Preakness attracted a field of 13, only three of them moved on to the Belmont Stakes, and not one of them finished better than seventh. Only War of Will ran in all three Triple Crown races.
So who's No. 1 in the division? It might be best to put off that question until Aug. 24 at Saratoga when the Runhappy Travers Stakes is expected to be a melting pot for the leading championship contenders.
When Pletcher, who sent out Wertheimer and Frere's Spinoff to finish sixth and Lawana and Robert Low's Intrepid Heart eighth in the Belmont Stakes, was asked about the leader of the division, he basically said thanks but no thanks.
"I wouldn't vote. I'd abstain," he said. "As you know, Eclipse voting in June means very little."
Even Casse, with two classic winners in his barn, was not about to start campaigning.
"They have to make someone the leading 3-year-old now, but it's meaningless," he said. "It all has to be decided later on. The Travers will be a big deal, and after that there's the Breeders' Cup. To talk about it is nice, but right now it's up for grabs. The champion will be whoever will have the best next few months."
The process could begin this coming week as Maximum Security is scheduled to work at Monmouth Park June 10 or 11, depending on the weather, and if he comes out of it well, it's likely he'll run in the June 16 TVG.com Pegasus Stakes at the New Jersey track in a tune-up for the July 20 TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes, also at Monmouth.
Michael and Jeff Fazio's Joevia, who held for third in the Belmont Stakes after leading the way into the stretch, is also under consideration for the Haskell, trainer Greg Sacco told Monmouth media after shipping back to his home base Sunday morning.
Also next month, Code of Honor, who was placed second in the Kentucky Derby, is on course to run in the July 6 Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park, and the Haskell might have a small but select field with the connections of the other top 3-year-olds showing little interest in meeting Maximum Security at his summer home where the racetrack is kind to his early speed.
Casse, Mott, and Pletcher, who sent out half of the field in the 10-horse Belmont, all talked about Saratoga races for their horses with the Travers looming as a true Mid-Summer Derby.
Casse listed the July 27 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga as a possible Travers prep for both Sir Winston and War of Will.
"I never had a problem running in a race with two owners," Casse said. "If they both belong in the Jim Dandy, they'll both run in it. I would think that would be the most logical choice, but it's only the day after the Belmont and I'm not too worried about that. We're still on target for the Travers with War of Will, and that's the same goal for Sir Winston."
As happy as Casse was for Sir Winston and his owners, he shared in the disappointment felt by the War of Will camp.
"He's extra tired after the race. I honestly think he struggled a little bit with the track, but I hate to use that as an excuse," Casse said. "Maybe the three races in five weeks got him. We didn't see the real War of Will yesterday, but we'll get him back. He'll rebound. He's a warrior and been through so many things. He's a hero to me. But he'll live to fight another day.
"Yesterday someone sent me an email saying you looked lost, and I said it was emotional," Casse continued. "You talk about a roller coaster. They are both our kids. As happy as you want to be about one son winning, you're upset about your other son. I was so happy for Sir Winston and the Farmers and then devastated for War of Will and Gary Barber. It was satisfying and yet disappointing at the same time."
Mott did not dismiss the possibility of running a horse in the Haskell, but Saratoga rates as the most likely next destination for his Kentucky Derby winner Country House and for Tacitus.
"On a day-to-day basis, we try to separate them, but I think everyone understands if you have a horse, you have to run (in a major race)," Mott said. "It was like Mark yesterday. Fortunately, he ran the other horse. I wouldn't rule the Haskell out, but I wouldn't be that anxious, given their running styles. Possibly both horses could run in the Jim Dandy."
For his two Belmont starters, Pletcher is considering both the Jim Dandy and the July 26 Curlin Stakes, which is restricted to non-winners of a graded stakes this year, and also run at Saratoga.
"Spinoff was only beaten three lengths, and he got exactly the trip we wanted. I've seen better from him than his last couple of races indicate," Pletcher said. "As I scratch my head a little bit, I hope he'll take a move forward. The plan is to go to Saratoga and hopefully run once before the Travers. I feel there's a step forward in him, we just have to see it.
"(The Belmont Stakes) was only Intrepid Heart's fourth race, and maybe we were asking a bit much from him. He's a lightly seasoned horse but was only beaten five lengths. He didn't run badly, he just needs to take that little step forward."
Surely, if anyone has taken a step forward this spring, it has been Casse. After the Kentucky Derby, he was at the center of the controversy over the disqualification because War of Will was the most bothered by Maximum Security, which set off a chain reaction that impeded other horses.
Then, at the Preakness' Alibi Breakfast, he was ribbed by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who noted how he, Bob Baffert, and Casse have a combined 29 Triple Crown wins, with Baffert having 15, Lukas 14, and Casse zilch. Since then, Casse has won two Triple Crown races.
"It's been an interesting five weeks," Casse said. "Definitely the most interesting five weeks of my life."
It might also be the five weeks that catapult him into the American Racing Hall of Fame. Already a Canadian Hall of Famer, Casse has been on the ballot the past two years but failed to receive enough votes to be enshrined at Saratoga. With two Triple Crown wins added to his résumé, that might put him over the top next year.
"I'm honestly not sure if there's a whole left out there for us to do," said Casse, who is also the only trainer other than Wesley Ward to win a race at Royal Ascot with an American-based horse. "Of course, we'd like to win the Kentucky Derby, but we've won a couple of classics now, won five Breeders' Cup races, and trained numerous champions and haven't done too badly north of the border with two Queen's Plate winners.
"Was I disappointed I didn't get into the Hall of Fame? Of course. It's been a lifelong goal for me, especially after losing my father a few years ago (in 2016). We used to go to the Hall of Fame, and I told him I'd be in here one day. I hope it helps sway some voters."
After what Casse has experienced since the first Saturday in May, that would surely seem fitting.
"I guess since he had the horse that got mugged the most in the Kentucky Derby," Mott said, "it was poetic justice that Mark won the other two ends of it. He got cheated out of his chance to run well in the Kentucky Derby."