The waiting is almost over – at least, for this round.
I’ll Have Another, a dramatic winner of both the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Preakness, bids on Saturday to win the mile and a half Belmont Stakess, the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
3 In 1970s
If trainer Doug O’Neill’s son of Flower Alley wins the so-called “Test of the Champion” he’ll be the first horse in 34 years to complete the classic sweep since the seeming embarrassment of riches in the 1970s that provided us with a trio of Triple Crown champions in the now-mythic Secretariat, the unbeaten Seattle Slew and the gritty Affirmed.
Since the latter outdueled Alydar in 1978, 11 3-year-old Thoroughbreds have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but have fallen short in the Belmont.
That group includes Spectacular Bid, one of the greatest horses of the 20th century, but one that found a way to lose the Belmont in 1978; Big Brown, who won the first two races with near disdain for his rivals and seemed as close to a “sure thing” as there could be in 2008 – but he finished an inexplicable last in the finale; Smarty Jones, who had hoped to join Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Triple Crown champion in 2004, was softened up by unexpected challenges on the front end during his Belmont and gave way in the final yards.
Another horse that was surely good enough to win the Triple Crown in his year was the Bob Baffert-trained Point Given, who romped in both the Preakness and the Belmont after finishing fifth in the Derby to Monarchos. Baffert had two more bids with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) evaporated in the final yards in the Belmont.
Afleet Alex dominated both the Preakness and Belmont after finishing a close third to 50-1 longshot Giacome in 2005 – nearly falling down at the head of the stretch in the Preakness before sprinting away from his rivals.
The point of the exercise is to caution that it is acceptable to anticipate the magic of a Triple Crown, but don’t count once. There is a reason that no horse has swept the three-race series since Affirmed: it’s extremely difficult and challenging. It is, perhaps, the most difficult challenge in American sport.
When Secretariat entered the Triple Crown fray in 1973, it had been 25 years since Calumet Farm’s great Citation had won the three races in 1948.
I’ll Have Another has yet to put himself in a serious manner in the same conversation with the trio of heroes of the ‘70s, Citation, Whirlaway, War Admiral or any of the other Triple Crown champions. That conversation will begin Saturday evening if the Derby winner takes the Belmont Stakes.
It Won’t Be Easy
The only seeming guarantee on Saturday is that the task will quite likely not be easy.
That became abundantly clear when two of I’ll Have Another’s Derby rivals – third-place finisher Dullahan and Union Rags – turned in spectacular workouts in their final major training moves prior to the Belmont. The Dale Romans-trained Dullahan worked a sizzling half-mile at Belmont Park, while the hard-luck Union Rags – a horse that trainer Michael Matz believed had a chance to sweep the Triple Crown before a trouble-plagued journey on the first Saturday in May cost him any chance he might have had to win the Kentucky Derby – worked a very fast five furlongs at Maryland’s Fair Hill training center.
The message to I’ll Have Another from the camps of both horses was clear and concise: Game on.
And there are other dangers. In a distance race that is frequently dominated by early speed, Baffert’s lightly-raced Paynter looms a front-running threat to avenge the pair of painful losses inflicted on stablemate Bodemeister in this year’s first two jewels. And Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas will saddle longshot Optimizer, who was well-beaten in both the Preakness and the Belmont.
The career of Lukas is dotted with wins in big races with horses that made far less sense than Optimizer, and a win by the former basketball coach would enable Lukas to break a tie with fellow Hall of Famer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and become the all-time leader in victories in Triple Crown races, although a sweep of the three by a single horse has eluded him.
O’Neill has taken a slightly unusual path to the Belmont by deciding against working I’ll Have Another in the three weeks between the Preakenss and the Belmont, but he knows his horse and has made no wrong moves in 2012 in getting his colt to this point. And for I’ll Have Another to win on Saturday, jockey Mario Gutierrez will need to remain in that special zone that has allowed him to turn in perfect rides in the first two Triple Crown races of the 25-year-old’s career.
That’s a lot of “ifs” to consider, but one also must remember the positives I’ll Have Another brings to Saturday’s Belmont. His stalking style is perfect for the race and, if the pace scenario falls apart, it is easy to see him comfortably on the lead if that is what is required. And his pedigree is loaded with distance influences on both sides. His pedigree should not let him down at the end of the Belmont’s demanding 1 ½ miles.
Wrong A Lot
In horse racing, one is wrong quite often. Those who win 20 percent of the time in our sport are often hailed, and correctly so in most cases, as geniuses. It’s a difficult sport and never more so than during a Triple Crown.
My Belmont Stakes top three: Union Rags, Dullahan and I’ll Have Another.