With Preakness champion Cloud Computing uncertain to start in the Belmont Stakes, the thoroughbred racing world faces the strong possibility of a second straight year with three different winners of the three Triple Crown races.
Trainer Chad Brown said Cloud Computing came out of his upset victory in good order. But even in the immediate afterglow at Pimlico Race Course, he seemed wary of running the colt on three weeks' rest or at the 11/2-mile distance of the Belmont.
"Do I think he's a mile-and-a-half horse? He's never really struck me that way, but I'm not going to rule it out," he said. "I'll leave it as a possibility right now."
Brown and owners Seth Klarman and William Lawrence used a conservative approach to set up Cloud Computing's Preakness triumph. So it would be surprising if they suddenly turned aggressive in scheduling a horse who still has just four career starts.
Cloud Computing was already back in Brown's barn at Belmont Park 15 hours after the Preakness. His connections will make a final decision on his status for the Belmont Stakes by next weekend. For his part, the 38-year-old Brown said he needed to get back to work with his other horses.
"It has sunk in," he said of his first classic win. "We're thrilled with the result. The horse looks well and our team here is just so happy with the race yesterday."
Trainer Todd Pletcher said he's not sure what's next for Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming, who boarded a van to return to New York on Sunday morning. Pletcher still couldn't give a definitive reason why Always Dreaming faded so badly to finish a disappointing eighth.
"Like I kind of cautioned everyone during the week, sometimes you don't know those things until the quarter pole, but everything that we had seen, we were happy with," he said. "I kind of process through it and say, 'What would I have done differently if I could?' I don't know if there's anything I could have changed."
Among the horses who've run the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Preakness runner-up Classic Empire and fourth-place finisher Lookin At Lee are most likely to complete the series at Belmont Park on June 10.
Classic Empire perhaps ran the best combined pair of races in the Derby and Preakness but won neither. He overcame a violent collision to finish fourth at Churchill Downs and did the hard work of putting away Derby champion Always Dreaming on Saturday, only to be passed in the last few strides by Cloud Computing.
Trainer Mark Casse said Classic Empire was a better horse Saturday than he had been two weeks earlier.
"He ran his race. We had a fair shot," Casse said. "We just got beat. I didn't even know who was coming; I really didn't care who was coming. I just knew somebody was coming."
Lookin At Lee, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, delivers a fierce effort every time out, even if he's perhaps not as talented as the best horses in the class.
"You don't get a tremendous amount of variable," said Asmussen, who won the Belmont last year with Creator. "What you get is circumstances, the things that are out of his control, the track condition and pace scenario. He's just a horse who always does what he can do, and we're proud of him for that. But with a horse that is as pace-dependent as he is, there are a lot of things that are out of his hands."
With two-thirds of the Triple Crown done, we're no closer than ever to determining the star of this year's 3-year-old crop. A confounding prep season has continued right into the big races, with no horse able to string together a run of brilliant performances.
Always Dreaming seemed poised to do it after impressive wins in the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby, but he had nothing left to give down the stretch in the Preakness. That led Pletcher, who was thrilled with the colt's preparations at Pimlico, to speculate Always Dreaming might lack the stamina to run on two weeks' rest. It's a test top 3-year-olds simply don't face very often these days.
Classic Empire has demonstrated obvious talent and competitive will but lacks a defining victory as a 3-year-old. He could change that at Belmont, where he'd likely be the favorite.
Cloud Computing will have to win another big race to be remembered as anything but a surprise champion.
Last year, Arrogate, the star of the 2016 class and current best horse in the world, did not fully emerge until summer. But that was an unusual case.
For now, the clearest thing about the 2017 group is that nothing is clear.