Jun 05, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Flash back to June 10, 1978. It’s a sun-drenched Saturday, and on the homestretch at Belmont Park an epic plays out. Ridden by a profusely talented teenager named Steve Cauthen, Affirmed noses out Alydar and gains horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Thirty-four years later, we’re still waiting for another. So maybe it takes a horse called, fittingly enough, I’ll Have Another, to end the drought.
The only problem is that we’ve had these thoughts before, 11 different times. That’s how many horses have grabbed the Kentucky Derby and snared the Preakness since the spring of ’78, only to find that the grueling 1 ½ mile trek around the oval on Long Island is too much to pull off.
You name the circumstance, it’s happened. From injuries to Charismatic (1999) and Big Brown (2007) to valiant efforts from Pleasant Colony (1981), War Emblem (2002) and Funny Cide (2005) that fell short, the heartaches are plentiful.
Sometimes, as in Alysheba (1987) and Sunday Silence (1989), a rival – Bet Twice, and then Easy Goer – steps up and wins big, which masks the disappointment. Or they lead at the top of the stretch, as Silver Charm did in 1997 and Smarty Jones did in 2006, but can’t finish it off.
Or, most agonizing, there was 1998, and Real Quiet. He had it, it seemed, with 100 yards to go, but Victory Gallop caught up and forced a photo finish. The wait for that photo was as tense a moment as I’ve ever encountered in a lifetime of following sports. And when the picture showed Real Quiet beaten by the smallest of noses – well, talk about a deflated balloon.
Every time, you think this will be the year. Every time, it isn’t. So why get pulled in again with I’ll Have Another as he takes his Belmont bow this Saturday?
Well, start with the trips he had in both of the first two jewels. Mario Gutierrez, a heretofore unknown jockey from Mexico by way of Canada, had never rode the Derby before May 5, but he handled Churchill Downs like an old pro, laying off the furious pace of Bodemeister and saving his best run for the stretch.
More impressive was what happened in the Preakness. Bodemeister set a slower pace at Pimlico, saving himself for the final push over the shorter 1 3/16 mile distance, and turned for home in charge. And I’ll Have Another still caught him inches from the wire, a masterpiece of patience from Gutierrez.
A further reason to believe that this is the year is that Bodemeister is not coming to Belmont. Instead of savoring the Alydar-Bet Twice-Easy Goer role of spoiler (which may or may not work), Bob Baffert is not bringing him to New York. Is that a proverbial white flag?
Of course, there will be plenty of refreshed challengers who didn’t go in Louisville or Baltimore, leading to a common obstacle to a modern Triple Crown. Simply put, these colts aren’t raced as much as in previous generations, so they don’t get a chance to build stamina. Too much risk, say the breeders, thinking of stud fees once they’re done circling ovals.
This brings us to Doug O’Neill. A well-respected California trainer, O’Neill had never saddled a winner in a Triple Crown race before I’ll Have Another. Not only is he talented, he also is a good spokesman for a sport banished to the American fringes.
Yet O’Neill has faced his share of controversy, mostly around the allegations that some of his horses took a “milkshake” of fluids designed to prevent fatigue. Four different charges have surfaced, one that led to a 180-day suspension in California, later reduced to 45 when it was found that one of his horses did have an elevated level of TCO2, but it wasn’t from milkshaking.
Some, though, have already taken the charges, true or not, and used them as a club to punish O’Neill and his current star, suggesting that, yes, some sort of asterisk must be attached should I’ll Have Another grab the Triple Crown. When it comes to stories like this, apparently you can never, ever be self-righteous enough.
For the vast majority of sports fans, all of this is just a sideshow. When 70,000 or more stream into Belmont Park, and millions more gather around their TVs, all they will care about is whether I’ll Have Another, in the most important 2 ½ minutes of his life, finds the right combination of skill and good fortune to join the immortals.
Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed – for so long they have stood as the only 11 horses to emerge from sports’ toughest five-week gauntlet triumphant.
They’ve waited for a 12th member. They may just have another after all.