You, too, should cheer for I'll Have Another.
If he wins Saturday's 144th Belmont Stakes and becomes the 12th horse ever to sweep the Triple Crown series, even if you're not a fan or if you've invested a few coins on another horse in the race, you should celebrate the victory, and not just because it'll culminate a rare and extraordinary achievement or even because it'll define greatness in traditional terms.
Curiosity, democracy and favorable possibilities are all lining up as reasons to hope for a Triple Crown winner. Most of all, though, if I'll Have Another succeeds Saturday, you should celebrate his Belmont as a victory over mindless bureaucracy.
Some pundits might argue that trainer Doug O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam don't deserve a Triple Crown – as if it would be theirs and not the horse's. And others might suggest the Triple Crown is like a prom, much more fun to anticipate than to realize. But nearly everyone involved in racing and most fans of the sport will, I suspect, cheer for I'll Have Another out of curiosity, if for no other reason.
Will a Triple Crown winner be good for racing, as many suspect? Certainly the possibility of a Triple Crown winner will be a boon for business Saturday, but beyond that, will racetracks fill with fans clamoring to see I'll Have Another? Possibly.
This modern sports world that's all aTwitter has never seen a Triple Crown winner. How will it respond? Will young fans be fascinated with a creature they've only heard about, along with Babe the Blue Ox and Sasquatch? Will the Belmont Stakes sit atop SportsCenter's Top 10? How many endorsements is a Triple Crown worth? It should all be entertaining to watch.
And will a Triple Crown winner be good for racing, as many suspect? Certainly the possibility of a Triple Crown winner will be a boon for business Saturday, but beyond that, will racetracks fill with fans clamoring to see I'll Have Another? Possibly. If he races next year -- and Reddam has indicated the colt will, if healthy, indeed continue to compete -- will he return the sport to the front page from time to time? Maybe.
As for effects that might reverberate throughout the industry, will potential horse owners go to the sales of yearlings in September and to the sales of 2-year-olds early next year in the hope of finding the next I'll Have Another? Certainly they will, and they won't have to be millionaires either. I'll Have Another sold for just $11,000 as a yearling in 2010.
And last year, in Ocala, Fla., Dennis O'Neill, the older brother of the trainer, plucked a bargain out of an auction of 2-year-olds in training. Twenty horses in the sale brought $150,000 or more, but the handsome chestnut who on Saturday could become the 12th Triple Crown winner sold for only $35,000. After the hammer fell, completing the sale of hip No. 494 to O'Neill on behalf of Reddam, the very next horse to pass through the ring brought $55,000. That colt has yet to race.
With a modest pedigree and stature, I'll Have Another sold for a price that was just above the sale average of $31,301. Sheikhs and princes, kings and queens, might throw millions at the sport, but I'll Have Another insists that horse racing remains the most democratic of games, accessible to everybody. And so, yes, later this year and early next, hopeful and potential owners will search the sales looking for another.
But perhaps the best reason to cheer I'll Have Another is that his Belmont could become a victory over the dull-witted, chest-thumping ruminants who control New York racing. They've attempted to turn the Belmont Stakes into Kabuki.
It began with the nasal strip. I'll Have Another has worn a Flair nasal strip in all four of his victories this year, but the Belmont stewards won't allow him to wear it Saturday. Like the ones people wear but much larger, the nasal strip extends over the horse's nose and is intended to reduce airway stress.
How can something that isn't intrusive, but is clearly visible, something that has no harmful side effects and might possibly even be salubrious, something in fact the horse has used all year – how can this not be allowed? The explanation was that stewards can't regulate nasal strips. (Do football players wear nasal strips? Does anybody care?) The nasal strip, a steward explained, might come off. You mean like horses' shoes sometimes come off?
And then by fiat the New York State Racing and Wagering Board created a detention barn and an extraordinary set of protocols for the horses entered in the Belmont Stakes. The detention barn, where all the Belmont entrants had to be stabled by Wednesday, has been compared, appropriately enough, to a prison, complete with bare bulbs illuminating the cells, or rather stalls, and ubiquitous security guards.
Everyone entering the barn must log in. All equipment and feed and bedding must be inspected, prompting Dale Romans, the trainer of Dullahan, to point out that the New York regulators are treating horsemen like "crooks."
John D. Sabini, the chairman of the New York board, said the detention barn and the protocols ensure the Belmont will be "run in a safe and fair manner." As for the other 12 races at Belmont Saturday, well, he gave no assurances.
These, of course, are the same regulators who overlooked the nearly $8.5 million shortchanging of bettors. And they're putting on the Kabuki show of concern for the integrity of racing and care for the betting public?
It all seems, of course, aimed at Doug O'Neill and the horse that's trying to complete a sweep of the famed series. But O'Neill has said he welcomes the transparency and doesn't expect any problems.
Nevertheless, the protocols could have unintended and disastrous consequences. To see a horse, veterinarians must make an appointment with board investigators. But what if there's an emergency? Will the horse have to suffer while waiting for an appointment?
And will bettors lose their money Saturday on some horse who has become so stressed and distracted by the prison he suddenly finds himself in that he can't run to his ability? Possibly, but maybe the fans and bettors can find some consolation in an I'll Have Another victory over a mindless bureaucracy.