Once again, we’ve got the horse right here. I’ll Have Another, who came charging from behind to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes last month, is the heavy favorite to claim Saturday’s Belmont Stakes and become the first thoroughbred in 34 years to complete the Triple Crown, the sport’s most cherished achievement. “If everything goes right, I think he’ll get there,’’ predicts legendary trainer Nick Zito, whose longshots ruined the last two bids, by Smarty Jones in 2004 and Big Brown in 2008. “I’m rooting for him.’’
So is every other equine enthusiast who has been waiting a seeming eternity to pop a cork in celebration of the first superhorse since Affirmed beat archrival Alydar by a head in 1978. “I think the whole racing world is just dying to have another great horse come along and capture their hearts,’’ said former jockey Steve Cauthen, who was a teenager when he rode Affirmed that year.
The “sport of kings’’ has struggled in recent decades with diminished attendance and doping issues that this year prompted New York racing officials to group all of the entrants in the same barn at the Long Island track, keeping them under 24-hour guard with veterinarians accompanied by escorts. If I’ll Have Another does end the 34-year drought, the sport’s guardians want no cloud over his triumph.
“With a horse like I’ll Have Another . . . you’re really under a strong microscope,’’ acknowledged his trainer, Doug O’Neill, who is facing a 45-day California suspension after one of his horses was found to have more than the total allowed carbon dioxide. “I think it’s all just trying to show the public we care for the horses, and that when you put your hard-earned money and you bet on one of the horses you can know they’re all clean and pure and ready to go.’’
While most of Saturday’s bettors will be holding tickets on I’ll Have Another, history indicates that they’ll have a losing number.
After Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all claimed the Triple Crown in a six-year span in the 1970s, 11 horses who’ve since won the first two legs have come to grief on Belmont’s 1 1/2-mile dirt track.
“Those three horses were among the greats of all time,’’ observed Steve Haskin, senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse. “None of the 11 that came after were even close to being in that category. They just weren’t in the same class.’’
Some racing insiders believe that the difference is in the breeding shed. “Back in the Seventies we were still breeding horses to race them, and so much of the industry now is concentrated on sales,’’ said Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner. “And so you breed a precocious, good-looking early-speed horse who isn’t equipped to go a mile and a half or to run three hard races in five weeks.’’
Between 1935 and 1948, six horses pulled it off - Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, and Citation. “The breeding pool was much smaller then,’’ said Haskin. “Most of the sires were tough stock. We’re infusing too much speed into the blood now.’’
Decades ago, stamina and durability were bred in. Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, took the Derby and Preakness four days apart in 1919, then ran in the Withers Stakes before the Belmont. In 1948 Citation raced in the Jersey Derby before the Belmont. Citation had 20 starts in his Triple Crown year, as did Whirlaway in 1941. For I’ll Have Another, the Belmont will be only his fifth race of the year.
“You’ll get debate on this point, but horses just aren’t as robust as they used to be,’’ observed Andrew Beyer, the longtime columnist for the Washington Post and Daily Racing Form. “Horses used to run, turn around, and run another stakes race seven days later. Now, trainers want to freshen them up for two months.’’
For modern lightly-raced 3-year-olds, handling three races in five weeks at different tracks in several states is a daunting challenge, especially with fields that are considerably larger than they were in Secretariat’s day, when he faced 12 rivals in the Derby, five in the Preakness, and four in the Belmont. “So many owners and trainers want to do this,’’ said Zito. “There’s so much competition. You talk to an owner today, he just wants to be in a Triple Crown race.’’
Citation had only five Derby rivals and Affirmed 10. Big Brown had 19 four years ago, as did I’ll Have Another. Getting to the finish line at Churchill Downs is like maneuvering through Grand Central Station at 5 p.m. on Friday. “You can’t win the Derby and have a rough trip,’’ said Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew. “It doesn’t happen. So with all those horses in there somebody’s going to have a rough trip and maybe should have won the race and didn’t.’’
Many Derby losers simply sit out the Preakness two weeks later in Baltimore, as did Birdstone, the 36-1 shot who ran down Smarty Jones. “Maybe there’s something to a fresh-horse scenario,’’ said Zito, who kept Da’Tara out of the first two legs in 2008 and watched his 38-1 shot lead from start to finish to beat Big Brown, who didn’t finish.
When a Triple Crown contender gets to the Belmont these days, he’ll find a more crowded field. Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, and Count Fleet had only two or three opponents. “Those were small fields,’’ said Haskin. “They basically were processions that served as coronations for those horses.’’
Secretariat, who had only four competitors, enjoyed the most dominant trip ever, going wire-to-wire to win by 31 lengths. “My curiosity got the best of me, and I just took a peek at the back,’’ said jockey Ron Turcotte, who had to turn so far around in the saddle that trainer Lucien Laurin feared that he’d fall off.
While the 11 Crown winners faced a total of 48 rivals, Haskin observed, the 11 who’ve failed since Affirmed have been up against 92. And yet several of them came agonizingly close. Spectacular Bid, whom Turner considers “the iron horse of his generation,’’ likely would have won in 1979 had he not had a safety pin from an ankle bandage embedded in his hoof and had jockey Ron Franklin not rashly chased 85-1 no-hoper Gallant Best.
In 1997 Silver Charm jockey Gary Stevens, who’d reckoned that Free House was the most dangerous rival and raced accordingly, found himself in the lead earlier than he wanted to be. “I was in shock when I saw a shadow coming,’’ he recalled. “I didn’t know who it could have been.’’ It was Touch Gold, who won by three-quarters of a length.
A year later it was Stevens producing the stunner as his Victory Gallop, working his way up from 10th, nailed Crown contender Real Quiet by a nose at the wire. “I didn’t think I had a shot in hell of catching him when we went into the stretch,’’ said Stevens, now an NBC analyst.
The track’s extra quarter-mile does in horses not bred for the distance and seduces favorites’ jockeys into either pushing their horses too early or holding them back too long. “Everything has to go your way,’’ said Turcotte. “There’s no room for mistake in Triple Crown.’’
So far I’ll Have Another’s camp has done what it can to give him a chance at immortality. It shipped him to New York on May 20, the day after the Preakness, to let him get comfortable with the track, and it is giving jockey Mario Gutierrez multiple mounts there this week.
“I know he is capable of doing such amazing things,’’ said Gutierrez, who likens his mount to a sports car. “He loves racing. He has the biggest heart ever.’’
I’ll Have Another nailed favored Bodemeister, who won’t be at the Belmont, just before the wire in both the Derby and Preakness. “The one thing he does do, he just keeps coming,’’ said Zito. “And that’s a very big thing.’’
While Patrice Wolfson relishes being the co-owner of the last Triple Crown winner, she wouldn’t mind relinquishing the distinction. “Maybe the time has come now,’’ she said. “I certainly think racing needs a horse that will bring a lot of excitement and this little guy I think can do that.’’