"What do you think of Drosselmeyer?" a colleague asked two years ago several hours before the Belmont Stakes.
There was nothing of historic importance hanging in the balance that day. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness had not produced a horse in position to sweep the Triple Crown and even the winners were absent. There was no electricity in the air, no anticipation of a six-figure crowd; no noise. That Belmont, the 142nd and Test of the Champion in name only, was no more than the 11th of too many races that would be run that day in New York, a betting opportunity for those prone to joust with the unknown factor posed by 12 furlongs, but little more.
"He's slow," I answered.
"Yes," my colleague said, "but sometimes a slow horse wins this race."
So a slow, if long-winded, horse won that day, rewarding those who viewed slow as a positive at 12 furlongs with a $28 mutuel. That Belmont, like each run since 2008, when Big Brown joined the long list of 3-year-olds whose assault on history fell short in the oldest and longest leg of the Triple Crown, was without consequence, but landscape and atmosphere could be no more different this time. The test is not to determine which of the participants is capable of plodding longer than his opponents, but one that may produce a champion for the ages, end in one of those moments that will live forever in the minds of the witnesses, unfold amid the deafening, unforgettable roar reserved by the New York horseplayers for the most rare of champions.
There are a few fast 3-year-olds among the anticipated entrants in Saturday's 144th Belmont, including the principal figure in position to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, and I'll Have Another is clearly the fastest. But measures of speed and estimates of stamina sufficient to endure 12 furlongs are not the only subplots in this drama. I'll Have Another will carry the support of those who value common sense and propriety as well as speed and stamina.
I'll Have Another will have much support, both emotional and parimutuel, on Saturday. Dullahan, who was third in the Derby and withheld from the Preakness, appears to be the principal threat to derail this Triple Crown bid, and Paynter joins the cast in the role of joker in the deck, the speed horse perhaps capable of pulling the rug from beneath I'll Have Another or stopping for water at the quarter pole. The jury is out. I'll Have Another, who has not been defeated in 2012, will be 1-20 in the hearts of racing fans and 2-5 on the Belmont Park tote board.
But if I'll Have Another wins the Belmont and Triple Crown, there will be more than a few who will relish the accomplishment not only for it historical importance but for the symbolic thumbing of his nose in the face of the absurd confinement imposed by the New York Racing and Wagering Board in what it claimed to be a measure taken at the expense of all in the interest of integrity and media reports based on conjecture and innuendo.
The board's chairman, John Sabini, recognizing an opportunity to get his name in the newspapers, ordered the Belmont horses sequestered for much of the week lest trainer Doug O'Neill administer some sort of sinister potion to I'll Have Another that would propel the colt into history while eluding the gamut of some 900 substances that New York authorities are capable of detecting in postrace tests.
Last week O'Neill was handed a 45-day suspension in California for a third overage of total carbon dioxide in a horse dating back to a 2010 race at Del Mar, a charge he has fought aggressively. The hearing officer agreed that O'Neill did nothing illegal and the infraction involved carbon dioxide, not some mysterious chemical beyond the detection capability of the California regulatory laboratory, but under what is known as the absolute insurer rule, the trainer takes the fall. Fine. According to the Association of Racing Commissioners International database, O'Neill has been fined nine times since 1997 for horses exceeding the regulatory threshold level of legal therapeutic medications, none of which is considered to have a high potential to affect performance. His other violations have been for things such as not having a horse's foal papers on file when it was entered in a race, not reporting that a horse was gelded and parking incorrectly on a track backside. The only prior suspension he has served was 15 days for a total carbon dioxide overage in Illinois. This is hardly the record of a desperado despite the repeatedly stated opinion of a once-respected New York City newspaper that employs a columnist who last week labeled racing a "blood sport" and has assumed a delusional editorial position that views the Sport of Kings as though it is a branch of the Costa Nostra.
I am kind of looking forward to running him in a situation when you're in a fishbowl and everyone who has thought negative thoughts about me can realize it's not about me, it's about the horse.
”-- Trainer Doug O'Neill
Sabini, perhaps noting the high incidence of positive tests for powerful, illegal, performance-enhancing drugs in Grade 1 races -- which is, in fact, zero -- decided that sequestering the entire field was necessary to ensure the purity of the third leg of the Triple Crown. Perhaps this pathetic, almost comical and certainly disingenuous fervor will carry some weight with those who wield power in Albany, but is recognized by most others as a shameless publicity ploy.
Despite the distracting nonsense, which has not prevented New Yorkers from rolling out the red carpet for I'll Have Another, there is more than a good chance that the Triple Crown will be swept for the 12th time and that the colt O'Neill trains will by the end of Saturday occupy a throne vacant since 1978. New Yorkers have embraced the striking California-based colt. He drew a crowd at the paddock rail Sunday when taken for schooling to the saddling enclosure before a morning gallop. His attempt to make history at one of racing's most historic venues is expected to draw more than 100,000 to Belmont Park on Saturday, when horses, not the media, set the agenda.
"I am kind of looking forward to running him in a situation when you're in a fishbowl and everyone who has thought negative thoughts about me can realize it's not about me, it's about the horse," a nonplussed O'Neill said Sunday. "And they can watch him lead up to a historical event and, hopefully, watch him kick butt, in a fishbowl."
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.