BALTIMORE – Carl Nafzger was in the middle of discussing the virtues of the Preakness Stakes as the second jewel in the Triple Crown when he suddenly put it all into perspective.
"The Preakness is great. Everybody knows it," the longtime trainer said. "But it's not the Kentucky Derby and never will be."
The Derby is without question the most prominent horse race in the United States. It attracts the finest 3-year-olds in the world, usually draws more than 150,000 fans and owns a wonderful, snappy nickname: "The Run for the Roses."
The winning horse is virtually assured a future as a stud, the winning trainer enhances his reputation and the winning jockey — at least this year — earns an invitation to a white-tie dinner with Queen Elizabeth.
"There's only one Derby," conceded Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club.
And what can be said of the Preakness?
"What makes the Preakness special is, when the horses come here you still have the chance for a Triple Crown," Raffetto said.
That's the main reason why Nafzger was holed up in Baltimore the latter part of this week. After winning the Derby with Street Sense two weeks ago, Nafzger hoped for a replay in the Preakness on Saturday.
Even if Street Sense didn't surge to victory in the Derby, Nafzger might have shipped his horse to Baltimore. But his incentive would have extended beyond the $1 million purse.
"Without the Derby, you still come here because it's a stud race," he said.
That, to a degree, explains why there are five horses in the Preakness that did not participate in the Kentucky Derby. Because the newcomers are fresh, it makes it that much tougher for the Derby winner to pull off a suitable encore.
"Coming back in two weeks, you're a little bit vulnerable," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said, "and the new, fresh faces are going to be a concern."
Should Street Sense win, the crowd in New York for the Belmont will be massive. If he loses, there should be a sparse gathering in the grandstand — and at the starting gate — on June 9.
"You do not go to the Belmont for stud value," Nafzger said. "It's a different race. If you've got a horse that likes to go long and is a big, old plodder or something, you go there because there's money and prestige."
If there is no Triple Crown on the line, the importance of the Belmont is greatly diminished. Baltimore may not have the tradition of Churchill Downs and is not as worldly as New York, but the Preakness is rarely meaningless.
"We always figured the Preakness to be the truly important step," said Hard Spun trainer Larry Jones, who finished second in the Derby and never before had a horse in the Preakness.
"Up to here, there's the hope of a Triple Crown winner," he said. "This one could spoil it. If he gets beat, then the Belmont gets overlooked. To me, I don't think the Preakness gets overlooked at all."
Said Raffetto: "We're not the Derby, but we're just as important a part of the Triple Crown. With the Preakness, there's always that hope. We're all hoping for that winner."