Commentary

I'll Have Another a 20,000-1 shot?

Updated: May 22, 2012, 2:09 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

I'll Have Another is a very good, talented and consistent colt and has chased away Bodemeister, the only horse that seems capable of giving him a fight. On the surface, he should be a heavy favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and break the Triple Crown drought that has been ongoing since 1978.

Or should he?

That 11 other horses have gone into the Belmont Stakes since '78 with a chance to win the Triple Crown and have all lost cannot possibly be a coincidence. In fact, the odds of all 11 losing are roughly 20,000-1. (An explanation of how I came up with that number appears at the end of the column.)

Based on what he's done this year, I'll Have Another should be about 6-5 in the Belmont. Based on the recent history of the race, you can make the argument that he has no chance.

Affirmed beats Alydar to the wire to win the 1978 Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.
Horsephotos.comAffirmed (right) still stands as the last Triple Crown winner with his victory over Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes.
The Belmont Stakes has never been an easy race to win. It's contested at 1½ miles, an unfamiliar distance to the vast majority of contestants, and run over a demanding surface known as "Big Sandy." But it's been only 30 years or so that's it's been able to trip up each and every Triple Crown hopeful that has made it to the third leg.

From 1930, when the Triple Crown started to evolve as a series, through 1978, the last year a horse swept the series, 18 horses came to Belmont with a chance of the sweep. Ten won. Eight lost. The Belmont tripped up only 44 percent of the potential Triple Crown winners.

Starting in 1979, when Spectacular Bid failed in the Belmont, the count is 0-for-11. It's the same race, the same track and, for the most part, the same caliber of horses, yet the challenge has become virtually impossible.

Why?

Theories abound, but I believe it has everything to do with how the modern horse is handled. Three races in five weeks was no big deal for the horses of the '30s through the '70s, but these horses just can't handle it.

When Affirmed won the Belmont in 1978, it was his 17th career start and his eighth race of that year. From his 3-year-old debut in March through the Preakness, the most time off he had between races was 20 days. It's easy to see why he had the foundation to hold up to the demands placed upon him as a 3-year-old. These horses were tough because their trainers made them tough.

By contrast, I'll Have Another will be making his eighth career start in the Belmont and his fifth this year. He had 62 days between races when he went from the Robert Lewis to the Santa Anita Derby and another 28-day break between the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

That's just how it's done these days, and in some respects it works. Trainers have found a way to give horses lengthy breaks between races and then have them deliver top efforts when they actually do compete. But when it comes to the Triple Crown -- three races in five weeks -- the modern horse clearly has a tough time handling what becomes a very taxing situation. Some manage to run well (Real Quiet). Some crumble (Big Brown).

That they all run on Lasix might be another factor. Lasix acts to dehydrate horses before they race and common sense tells you that's a recipe for disaster when asking a horse to hold up through a hard schedule packed into a short time frame. The last nine Triple Crown hopefuls have all been Lasix horses.

There are, no doubt, other reasons for the drought, like breeding. Most horses are no longer bred to last 1½ miles, which makes every horse in the Belmont, no matter how good they look on paper, vulnerable. Bad luck, too, has played a role. Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin. War Emblem stumbled at the start. Real Quiet lost by a nose.

This can't be dismissed as a freaky coincidence. The horses that win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness are absolutely up against it in the Belmont Stakes. Sure, I'll Have Another can win. I hope he does. But the smart money will look elsewhere June 9 at Belmont Park, maybe to Union Rags or Dullahan. The odds, 20,000 of them, are against an I'll Have Another victory.

How I came up with 20,000-1: A horse's odds give you the best estimate of their chances to win. For instance, by making a horse even-money, the betting public has decided that it has a 50-50 or 50 percent chance of winning a race. A 1-5 shot has an 83 percent chance of winning and a 17 percent chance of losing. This does not take into account the takeout, which would alter the percentages but make the calculations way more messy and confusing. Based on the odds, I multiplied the chances of each horse losing by one another and came up with the chances of each and every Triple Crown hopeful since 1978 losing at 1 in 19,608 or 19,608-1.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com