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Wanting just one more

4/29/2014

With California Chrome's arrival at Churchill Downs, the excitement level for the upcoming Kentucky Derby has gone up yet another notch.

The flashy chestnut is almost certainly going to be sent off as the favorite in the Run for the Roses. He is talented and surrounded by a lot of likable people, so it is not surprising that I have heard more than one person speculate whether he could be "the one."

Horse racing desperately wants "the one," and by that, I mean the horse who will finally win the Triple Crown after a record-long drought. No horse has claimed the sport's greatest prize since Affirmed pulled off the hat trick of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the span of five weeks in 1978. Furthermore, he is only one of 11 horses to ever do so.

Even though he had a record similar to California Chrome's, I'll Have Another was sent off at odds of 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby.

Perhaps because he is also a chestnut colt from out West, California Chrome reminds me a bit of 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another, even though I'll Have Another was not as heralded a runner coming into the first Saturday in May.

In fact, even though he had a record similar to California Chrome's, I'll Have Another was sent off at odds of 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby. Both horses won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby to earn a spot in America's greatest race, but from year to year the prep race that is given the most weight varies.

Interestingly enough, though, both horses attempted Grade 1 company for the first time in September of their 2-year-old seasons. I'll Have Another contested the 2011 Hopeful Stakes, while California Chrome ran in last year's Del Mar Futurity. Both finished an inauspicious sixth, but both had excuses. It also goes to show that a lot of development happens in racehorses between their juvenile season and their 3-year-old campaign.

What California Chrome's future holds will begin to be revealed Saturday. Will he be able to handle the 1¼-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby? His pedigree says maybe not, but I have seen too many talented horses outrun what a piece of paper says to dismiss him on that alone.

As for I'll Have Another, he will be one of the greatest "what if" stories racing will ever know.

After his Kentucky Derby victory, I'll Have Another arrived at Pimlico for the Preakness with a lot more respect, but he still wasn't made the race favorite. That honor went to Bodemeister, who had been sent off as the Derby favorite as well but finished second under the Twin Spires.

I'll Have Another bested Bodemeister yet again in the Preakness, although this time it was by a much closer margin. The Derby winner won the Preakness by a neck after closing relentlessly and taking the lead in the final strides of the race.

It is almost impossible to describe the atmosphere after the Preakness when the Derby winner wins again versus when he doesn't. With a single photo finish, I'll Have Another infused the sport with an excitement that can't be replicated in any other way. Beyond the emotional ramifications, there is a significant beneficial economic impact on the Belmont Stakes.

I'll Have Another was all set to run in New York, and many thought he had a real chance at winning. He was in the best form of his life; he proved he was a fighter in the Preakness, and his pedigree said that the grueling 1½-mile Belmont should play to his strengths. Very few American runners are bred to run that far anymore, but I'll Have Another had enough stamina in his family's past that it wasn't an automatic red flag. Plus, there was no great horse waiting in the wings to take him on. Nice horses, yes, but none that I'll Have Another couldn't handle if he ran his best.

However, a mere 30 hours before I'll Have Another lined up for his date with destiny, the racing world was stunned to learn the colt was going to have to scratch from the race. His connections had discovered he was suffering from tendinitis in his left front tendon, and in the name of safety they decided that the colt's racing career was over.

To put this in historical context, 2014 marks 95 years since the Triple Crown was first won by Sir Barton. Only two other horses who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness did not run in the Belmont -- Burgoo King (1932) and Bold Venture (1936) -- but both came at a time when the Triple Crown was far from the Holy Grail of racing it has since become.

Having to scratch a Derby favorite the week of the race has happened more than once, and it is a tough pill to swallow. But having to scratch a horse who very well could give racing its first Triple Crown winner in decades? Heartbreaking.

As a nod to the fans who had planned to be on hand to witness history, I'll Have Another made an appearance on Belmont Day. He was led into the paddock an hour before what was supposed to be his greatest performance, and then was taken to the winner's circle. It was there he was ceremonially unsaddled for the last time.

Scratching the horse was the right thing to do, as the health and welfare of these equine athletes should always be the top priority. It doesn't mean it wasn't disappointing. To come so far, to get so close, and then to never get a chance to run? There is an edge of cruelty to that.

Racing has been broken for a long time, and a Triple Crown winner won't fix it, but a run at the history books does bring a level of excitement and joy and relevance that no other event in the sport can provide to the general public. Maybe that is why there was something so symbolically sad about that winner's circle farewell to I'll Have Another.

Smarty Jones could have won. Silver Charm could have won. For various reasons, they didn't, but they could have. I'll Have Another never got the chance.

Anyone who cares about racing who says they don't care about the Triple Crown is a liar. It might be a true statement 364 days of the year ... but on Belmont Day, when the horses burst out of the starting gate and history hangs in the balance? Then, in that moment, they care.

Great horses have come to the Belmont and lost it and the Triple Crown along with it. Spectacular Bid is the often trotted-out example, with Smarty Jones not far behind him. In fact, it is hard to believe this year marks a decade since the connections of Birdstone all apologized for beating Smarty Jones in the Belmont, and in doing so, breaking racing's collective heart.

The thing is, they got their chance. Smarty Jones could have won. My favorite horse of all time, Silver Charm, could have won. For various reasons, they didn't, but they could have. I'll Have Another never got the chance.

Never knowing the answer is far worse than getting an answer you don't like.

So here's hoping whoever wins on Saturday, be it California Chrome or someone else, actually gets to take a run at immortality five weeks later in the Belmont. It will make for a fun month of May, if nothing else.