It is entirely possible that on June 9 at Belmont Park, I'll Have Another will complete the first sweep of the Triple Crown since 1978. He is determined as well as talented and though there are potential spoilers among the anticipated opponents, the best are 3-year-olds he has beaten this season. He could be the one. Finally.
Perhaps it is better for all but his connections that I'll Have Another follow in the hoofprints of Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Big Brown.
If trainer Doug O'Neill is even the most casual student of history, he will bring jockey Mario Gutierrez to New York a full week before the Belmont Stakes and his agent will volunteer his suddenly famous rider's services to horses breezing in the morning and secure every mount possible in the afternoon. Jockeys riding for the first time at Belmont Park have a way of losing their places on the world's only 12-furlong dirt race course. A GPS is not yet standard equipment for jockeys and the "Test of the Champion" provides no margin of error.
Perhaps, however, it is better for all but his connections that I'll Have Another follow in the hoofprints of Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown. There is no shame to joining the list of horses who have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but were beaten in the Belmont during the span of more than three decades since Affirmed won all three races in pitched battles with archrival Alydar.
It is said all too repeatedly that racing needs a Triple Crown winner. But why? To what end? The streak of failure has become more interesting than a single success. It has a life of its own and it may be eternal.
The fact that these horses have failed in pursuit of the most infrequently won title in all of sport only deepens the Triple Crown's mystique and allure. Its vagueness has become almost charming. Most of those who saw Secretariat's thunderous plundering of the Derby, Preakness and the Belmont, leaving two records that still stand, are eligible for Social Security.
There was no fluke among those who have come a race short of immortality since 1978. Each was a high-class or top-class horse in the hands of a master horseman. Those not yet in the Hall of Fame will almost certainly be eventually inducted. Some are, or were, successful sires. All were fast and tough, dogged competitors who displayed both the measureable traits of a champion and the incalculable heart and courage that separates leaders from the herd, the immortal from the mundane. Each was a great story, a cherished memory to many.
The longer the sport goes without a Triple Crown winner, the more urgent the search, the more agonizing the wait. Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed made history in the '70s, when winning the Triple Crown became almost commonplace. But there was a 25-year gap between Citation and Secretariat during which many of the same questions were being posed concerning the abilities and durability of the contemporary thoroughbred. During the 20 years before that quarter-century vacancy of the throne, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation swept the series. Yet, between Citation and Secretariat, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Majestic Prince and Canonero II fell short in the Belmont Stakes, all luminaries in their own right and one who would develop into one of the most important sires of the 20th century.
No person still walking the earth has seen a thoroughbred better than Secretariat. He established that reality can surpass anticipation, but this is not always true.
Would the sport be in better standing had even half the Triple Crown failures since 1978 won the Belmont -- had Alysheba not been taken on the scenic route of Belmont by Chris McCarron, a ride that prompted trainer Jack Van Berg to quip, "Good thing Chris wasn't flying a plane;" had Real Quiet survived the breathless final stride despite a premature move by jockey Kent Desormeaux; had Charismatic not broken a leg; had Smarty Jones not been hard used far too soon by rider Stewart Elliott when lured into a fatal trap by the crafty Jerry Bailey; had Big Brown been ridden rather than wrestled. Would our hearts be lighter? Would racing be in no need of casino revenue? Would medication not be an issue? Would we be talking about I'll Have Another being potentially next in a line of succession rather than a potential savior in the public eye?
No horse on a winning streak will solve racing's problems, real or imagined, for more than about a few months.
No horse on a winning streak will solve racing's problems, real or imagined, for more than about a few months. That task is held in the shaky hands of the sport's timid, ineffectual leadership.
True superstardom is -- and should be -- as rare as a blizzard in June. When it reveals itself it is unmistakable, clear, permanent in memory and no less awesome than Secretariat opening 31 lengths, moving, in the words of announcer Chick Anderson, "like a tremendous machine," into the Belmont Park stretch.
Without mystique, the suggestion of impossibility and the debate over the state of racing and the animal around which it revolves that approaches its fourth decade, another horse positioned to win the Triple Crown would mean far less than it does now during the span of three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont when racing takes over the conversation, which invariably includes the words "not since Affirmed."
What would a Triple Crown winner really mean to the sport? It would certainly quell the inevitable wave of nonsense over the distance and spacing of races that form the adhesive of history and the brittle nature of the modern thoroughbred that follows every spring without a coronation. But this could be a case of absence making the heart grow fonder with each succession of failure. Perhaps the chase is sweeter than the capture, the hunt more compelling than the kill.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.