LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas stood outside his stable at Churchill Downs last week, peering through the morning drizzle toward the twin spires across the track.
He was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with 13 gold crowns -- one for each victory he's had in a Triple Crown race: four in the Kentucky Derby, five in the Preakness and four in the Belmont Stakes.
Lukas, though, is still hoping for the most elusive goal of all -- winning all three races in a five-week span to claim the Triple Crown.
''That may never happen, but I won't feel unfulfilled, because I know as well as anyone how hard it is just to win the first leg,'' said Lukas, horse racing's winningest trainer with more than $200 million in earnings.
Two years ago, Lukas had his first Triple Crown chance with Charismatic. After winning the Derby and Preakness, Charismatic challenged for the lead in stretch of the Belmont but faded to third with a career-ending leg injury.
It's been 22 years since Affirmed swept the Derby-Preakness-Belmont, the longest span between Triple Crown winners since the quarter century between Citation's sweep in 1948 and Secretariat's triumph in 1973.
Affirmed's death earlier this year leaves 1977 winner Seattle Slew, who stands at stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., as the only living Triple Crown winner.
''It just takes a phenomenal horse and great luck to win all three,'' said Steve Cauthen, who guided Affirmed to the Triple Crown in 1978 and now breeds horses in northern Kentucky.
''You need a horse with an engine,'' said jockey Corey Nakatani, who will ride Seattle Slew's grandson, A P Valentine, in next Saturday's Derby.
Seven horses since 1978 -- including three in the last four years -- have won the first two races, only to fall short in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, dubbed the Test of a Champion.
Bob Baffert trained two near-misses, Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
Silver Charm narrowly won the Derby and Preakness and led the Belmont at the eighth pole, only to be caught in the final strides by Touch Gold.
Real Quiet came even closer, winning the first two by healthier margins, but losing by a nose to Victory Gallop in the Belmont.
''I'm getting closer,'' Baffert said after the second setback. ''The Lord is making me wait. It keeps me humble.''
Many see Baffert's powerful duo of Point Given and Congaree as the most likely candidates to make a Triple Crown run. But now is not the time for trainers to think about the Triple Crown.
''What are you trying to do, jinx me? I don't want to talk about that,'' Baffert said this week. ''That's a question for later.''
Lukas said horses don't know what to expect when they start a Triple Crown run, which adds to the daunting challenge of winning races at three different race tracks over three different surfaces at three different distances.
''The demands on the horse are different from other sports in that we don't have a chance to practice the situation prior to the actual event,'' Lukas said. ''At least when you play in a championship basketball game, you know the court's 94 feet and the basket's 10 feet high.
''Here, you're in uncharted waters because you're running them at a distance they've never seen to that point in their careers on surfaces many of them are finding for the first time.''
Cauthen said most 3-year-olds simply aren't mature enough to handle it.
''It's tough to get a horse to be at 110 percent through three races in such a short span of time so early in his career, but that's what they have to be,'' said Cauthen.
Lukas said larger Derby fields have further complicated the task. The Derby has averaged 17 starters since 1995, and Lukas said that's because more owners want to be involved in the Derby even if they have little chance of winning.
Affirmed never faced a field larger than 10 during his sweep. Secretariat never had more than 12 challengers in 1973.
The last two Derbys had 19-horse fields. The maximum is 20.
''I don't think there are more good horses than there used to be, but there are more good horses in each race,'' said Lukas, whose record streak of 20 straight Derbys ends this year.
Nakatani, who has twice finished fourth in the Derby, said Triple Crown contenders have gotten stronger since the 1970s because training methods have improved.
''The horses are bigger and more competitive,'' said Nakatani. ''You're seeing some really good horses, horses who might've done well before, who are not doing so good in these races.''
Lukas said timing is also a factor.
''To win the Triple Crown, you have to have a dominant horse in a class that's not so good,'' he said. ''It's kind of like the Heisman Trophy. If you've got a great kid at Oregon one year, you better hope Notre Dame or USC doesn't have one. If you get a dominant horse into a class that's not very deep, then you've obviously got a much better chance to pull it off.''
But Cauthen said even if a horse appears to be better than the rest, its training still must go flawlessly.
''One little setback would've cost Affirmed the Triple Crown,'' he said. ''But nothing really happened to him negatively to impede his preparation for those races.
''He created his own luck, because he was such a versatile horse. But he also didn't step on a nail or bruise his foot or do anything that would've caused him to be any less than 100 percent.''
Spectacular Bid wasn't as lucky the following year. The charcoal gray colt easily won the Derby and Preakness, but trainer Bud Delp claims Bid stepped on a safety pin and damaged a hoof on the morning of the Belmont.
''He was just unlucky. I still haven't seen a horse like him,'' said Delp, who still trains horses in Maryland. ''He would've won the Triple Crown and who knows what else?''
Bob Lewis, who owned Charismatic and Silver Charm, said the sport could use another Triple Crown champion.
''It would be great for racing, great for the fans, great for everybody,'' he said. ''The Triple Crown is such a special thing.''
It would be nice for NBC, too. The network purchased the rights to broadcast the races in 1999. Last year, ABC drew its smallest-ever audiences for the Derby and Belmont.
The previous year, when Charismatic made his Triple Crown run, ABC's Belmont ratings were 53 percent higher.
''So many people got behind us when we had our wonderful trips,'' said Lewis. ''It was really phenomenal how the fans got behind the horses.''
The money's gotten also better.
In 1987, Visa began offering a $5 million bonus to the owner of any horse that wins the Triple Crown. Since 1996, the Derby winner has earned $1 million guaranteed. In 1978, the Derby purse was $125,000.
Lewis said it's still the prestige that makes the Triple Crown most tantalizing.
''When you're talking about horses that have won the Triple Crown, you're simply talking about the greatest horses in history,'' Lewis said.
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