In recent years, the first thing that happened if the Kentucky Derby winner did not win the Preakness was that the connections of one or both of the first two Triple Crown race winners quickly declared they would not be running in the Belmont Stakes.
So it was quite refreshing to hear minutes after a terrific finish to the May 21 Preakness that race winner Shackleford and the horse that closed from 18 lengths back early to a half-length back at the wire, Derby winner Animal Kingdom, would be going on to New York.
Cynics wondered if it would really happen. Wonder no more. Last year, no horses ran in all three Triple Crown races. This year, Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and Mucho Macho Man will race in all three. In fact, for the first time in history, the first seven finishers from the Derby will be running at Belmont Park on Saturday.
A field of 12 was entered this week. In the last decade, the Belmont has produced some strange winners -- Sarava (70-1), Birdstone (36-1) and Da'Tara (38-1). One of the other 10 horses could technically win this race, but it is about Animal Kingdom and Shackleford, the classic deep closer against the front-runner, the Derby winner against the Preakness winner.
The assumption will be that because the Belmont is one lap of America's largest racetrack -- the 1 1/2-mile course on the western tip of Long Island -- that Shackleford's speed won't hold up. That might not be a wise assumption.
One man, with a vested interest, is making that assumption.
"I'm not concerned at all about Shackleford," said Barry Irwin during Tuesday's Belmont Stakes Media Luncheon at Rockefeller Center. "Mucho Macho Man is the horse I'm worried about."
Irwin manages the Team Valor Partnership that owns Animal Kingdom.
"That's not the dumbest thing that Barry's ever said, but it's close," said Dale Romans, Shackleford's trainer.
This will have no impact on the race, but, if you are into history, this will be the 22nd time the Derby and Preakness winners have met in 143 Belmonts. The Preakness winner has won 10 times, the Derby winner five.
Irwin said it is not likely Animal Kingdom would race in the traditional post-Triple Crown races -- the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
"After the Belmont Stakes, the Breeders' Cup Classic would be a long-term goal at the end of the year," he said. "But I have my own idea of how to get there that wouldn't include the Haskell or the Travers."
Romans' answer was that: "I'll meet Animal Kingdom on any track, at any distance."
But it is doubtful Romans would want to send his speedball against Animal Kingdom on grass. And Irwin said they might run Animal Kingdom on turf to get him ready for the BC Classic at the Derby distance at the Derby track, Churchill Downs.
Animal Kingdom has run well on grass, synthetics and dirt. Shackleford has never raced on grass.
So, unless these two hook up again in November at Churchill, the Belmont Stakes may very well decide the three-year-old championship. If one wins or just finishes well in front of the other, that probably would be enough to win a championship that will be voted on in December.
Nehro, second in the Derby, did not run in the Preakness so that horse will have a bit of an edge over Animal Kingdom, Mucho Macho Man and Shackleford, first, third and fourth in Louisville, before running in Baltimore.
"It's common sense that they have a freshness edge," Animal Kingdom's trainer Graham Motion said. "Having said that, my horse hasn't given any indication (he's tired). Otherwise, we wouldn't be here."
Derby vets Master of Hounds (fifth), Santiva (sixth) and Brilliant Speed (seventh) are all back after passing the Preakness.
But the focus will be on Animal Kingdom (Post 9) and Shackleford (Post 12). The Preakness winner will be in front. The Derby winner will be somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Then, if the race were as good as the best imaginable script, the gap between the winners of the Derby and Preakness would be closing in the stretch as the wire loomed.
"I think these two horses coming down the stretch would be the ultimate," Motion said. "It would validate the other two races and start a rivalry. It's great for this race. It's a test of champions."