For nearly four decades, winning horse racing's Triple Crown had turned into the impossible dream.
We went 37 years — from Affirmed in 1978 to American Pharoah in 2015 — without a horse collecting the three crown jewels of the sport. But when American Pharoah snapped the drought, did we suddenly forget how hard of an accomplishment this is?
Has the Triple Crown lost its luster?
"Oh, now it doesn't seem that difficult?'' said Hall of Fame jockey and analyst Jerry Bailey, who will help call today's Preakness Stakes, the Triple Crown's second leg, on NBC. "Well, it is that difficult.''
Next up to try? Always Dreaming, who plodded through the mud and muck and slop two weeks ago to win the Kentucky Derby by nearly 3 lengths.
He has the pedigree. He is the son of Bodemeister, who was the runnerup in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012. When Always Dreaming breaks out of the gates at the Preakness today, he will try to become the 15th horse since Affirmed to win the first two races of the Triple Crown.
Don't be surprised if he does.
He might not look like a beast, the way American Pharoah did, but this is a horse that might have what it takes.
"I liked him coming out of the Florida Derby,'' Bailey said.
What wasn't to like?
Always Dreaming has been a special horse since his roots, which can be traced right back here to Tampa Bay. In the third start of his career, in January, he won for the first time at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar by 111/2 lengths.
Then came the impressive win in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach on April Fools' Day.
The only concern was that maybe he was too good too soon.
"The week of the (Kentucky) Derby, it seemed like too good of a pattern because (of) overeagerness in training and the adjustments that (trainer) Todd Pletcher had to make,'' Bailey said. "By the way, great adjustments. Give him an A-plus for the changes he made and keeping Always Dreaming and his energy level under control so he could use it on Saturday instead of the days leading up to it.''
This is just Pletcher's second Kentucky Derby winner. Super Saver in 2010 was his other. But Pletcher often skips the Preakness to get his horses ready for his home track, which has the Belmont Stakes.
His horses are 0-for-8 in the Preakness. The question now is will Pletcher have Always Dreaming in peak condition just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby?
"It's tough because horses aren't used to it,'' Bailey said. "Back in the day, they did this all the time. They turned around in sometimes a week or two weeks. But in the last 15 years or so, that has not been the case. It's not optimal, but it's the price you pay for winning the Kentucky Derby.
"I think that is one of the reasons why Todd typically doesn't run his horses back in the Preakness from the Kentucky Derby.''
The other issue for Always Dreaming and Pletcher: another really good horse, Classic Empire, who finished fourth at the Derby, 83/4 lengths behind Always Dreaming.
"No reason why Classic Empire, with a better trip, couldn't turn the tables,'' Bailey said.
Classic Empire had a horrible trip at the Kentucky Derby. He was slammed coming out of the gate and had to make wide turns after that. He ran about 75 feet farther than Always Dreaming.
It was the opposite of Always Dreaming, who ran superbly under jockey John Velazquez.
"Always Dreaming was able to work a perfect trip on what was the best part of the race track, the inside rail,'' Bailey said.
This could be setting up like 2000, when Pegasus had a perfect trip around the track at the Derby and then had to make two wide turns at the Preakness and finished second. Or like Animal Kingdom in 2011. He overcame a sluggish first half of the race in Kentucky and finished with a terrific close. He ran the same — slow start, fast finish — at the Preakness, but he couldn't close fast enough and lost to Shackleford by a half-length.
A wide turn here, a wide turn there. A great start in one race, an average start in another.
"Those are the kind of things that can happen when Derby winners get a great trip and then they don't get such a trip in the Preakness and somebody else gets a good trip,'' Bailey said.
Good news for Always Dreaming is everything seems to be set for another good run. The weather is supposed to warm in Baltimore today, but the track will be dry. He will run out of the fourth position, where he should be comfortable.
If he runs a good race and holds off Classic Empire, then he will be two-thirds of the way home to the Triple Crown heading into the Belmont.
Then we can talk about him joining the legends of the sport.
But to be sure, it won't be easy.
"It never is,'' Bailey said.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones