BALTIMORE - History will eventually decide whether the 2007 thoroughbred racing season has produced a 3-year-old crop for the ages, or just a trio of evenly matched horses that can't shake the others loose.
Is this Affirmed and Alydar with another great horse thrown in for good measure? Or is it Candy Spots, Chateaugay and Never Bend?
For the fifth time in the last 50 years, the horses that finished in the money in the Kentucky Derby were the money horses in the Preakness yesterday.
The winner this time was Curlin, just nosing out Derby winner Street Sense. Hard Spun, which had the lead around the final turn in both races, finished third instead of second this time.
Three pretty good horses - yesterday's winning time of 1 minute, 53.46 seconds equaled the Preakness record - and not a lot to separate them, except what happens from here.
"We'll keep being part of the trio and we'll get 'em someday," said Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun. "Maybe in three weeks."
That is the next date on the calendar, the Belmont Stakes on June 9. Curlin and Hard Spun seem likely to be there. Street Sense is only a maybe now that the Triple Crown is out of the question.
"This might be like the [foal] class of 1954 exactly 50 years later," Jones said. "You had Bold Ruler and Round Table and Iron Liege and Gallant Man. Maybe it's another crop like that. I would love to think I was part of one. It's still too early, but this is a good one, and we're part of it."
The only way it could be better for Jones, of course, and for owner Rick Porter is if the Pennsylvania-bred would finish in front in one of these big races.
Hard Spun had his chance yesterday. He followed speed horses Xchanger and Flying First Class through the opening half-mile, took the lead at three-quarters of a mile and went to the gas at the start of the final turn when challenged by false-stalking C P West.
"I knew the cavalry was coming and it was just a matter of how long he could keep outrunning them," Jones said.
Maybe jockey Mario Pino took the colt out too early. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Curlin roared past on the outside off of the turn, then Street Sense ducked inside and blasted past Curlin. Suddenly, it was a two-horse race to the wire and Hard Spun wasn't one of them.
Curlin showed amazing heart by gathering himself after being passed and tracking down Street Sense just before the finish line, earning the win with little more than a fortuitous bob of the head.
A great race with a great finish, run by three horses who might be great as well.
But if it was anything, yesterday's Preakness was also the kind of event that horse racing needed to help wipe away the unsettling memory of Barbaro's tragic trip a year ago.
This season hasn't produced a hero of that proportion, but good racing is the next best thing. The national television audience saw a clean race, although the record crowd of 121,263 at Pimlico did witness the other side of the game.
In the 10th race, a 4-year-old horse named Mending Fences broke down on the turf course as he fought for the lead entering the final turn. From the grandstand, he went down so quickly, he and jockey Eddie Castro seemed to just disappear.
In the pack just behind Mending Fences, jockey Robby Albarado - who would later guide Curlin to the Preakness win - tried to hold on as his horse, Einstein, leaped the fallen animal. Einstein made it over, but Albarado was unseated and hit the ground at full speed.
"I was very, very lucky I didn't get hurt," Albarado said. "I was on the grass course so I kind of slid 10, 15 feet."
When he came to rest, Albarado jumped up and ran to make sure Castro was clear of the stricken horse, which had multiple fractures in his right front leg. He did what he could to help Castro, who was also uninjured.
The horse had to be euthanized on the track, with a large green tarpaulin shielding the public from the scene and a boxy ambulance van in place to haul away the evidence.
And then the party continued. It continued particularly well for Albarado, who could have been killed, but ended up winning the Preakness Stakes. And it went well for both Street Sense and Hard Spun, even though one lost the possibility of a Triple Crown and the other lost the lead yet again.
When they come back to the barn safely, more than one trainer has said, often that is enough itself.
So there was life and death at the track once again, and perhaps another chapter in a season that will be remembered as a clash of racing royalty.
That won't be known for a while, but, in this year, these three are the best there is.
"They keep showing up to compete against each other, Jones said. "Maybe next time, we'll get a turn."
Unfortunately, he's running out of turns.