Commentary

Detour on road to Triple Crown

Latest Belmont another reminder there's no easy way from Louisville to Long Island

Updated: June 9, 2012, 4:42 PM ET
By William Nack | Special to ESPN.com

ELMONT, N.Y. -- They might as well have hung a bolt of black crepe across Belmont Park this morning, what with the way that horsemen and horseplayers everywhere were mourning the news. I'll Have Another -- the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner poised to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in history -- had injured a tendon in his left foreleg, forcing his handlers to scratch him from the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes. There would be no Triple Crown champion in 2012.

As Friday's news swept through the Belmont Park stable area like a brush fire, crackling from barn to barn, rival horsemen seemed stunned by the sudden turn of events, with the most voluble expressing all things from sympathy to sorrow over the chestnut's fate.

"It's just devastating," said Dale Romans, the trainer of Dullahan, I'll Have Another's main rival and the race's new favorite. "I really wanted him to compete. This was going to be a special race, one of the biggest races of our time."

"It's just a really sad day for the industry," said Kieran McLaughlin, the trainer of 2006 Belmont winner Jazil. "Luckily the horse is OK, and he'll live on to be a stallion and we'll hope to have a Triple Crown winner next year."

Hall of Fame conditioner D. Wayne Lukas has suffered his share of major setbacks in this game, and he understood as well as anyone what the colt's trainer, Doug O'Neill, was going through. "It practically brings you to your knees," said Lukas, adding, "You only get one chance to do this. From the standpoint of a purist, it's a blow."

A blow, indeed. And it represents yet one more reminder of how tortuous a road it can be from Louisville to Long Island.

Nothing in thoroughbred racing is more demanding and difficult than winning the Triple Crown, and I'll Have Another's departure from the Belmont Stakes served to underscore that fact.

Given the endurance, speed and durability it demands of the horse, sweeping the Triple Crown is as daunting as any single feat in major professional sports, requiring horses to perform in three hotly competitive races at different tracks, at different distances, in five short weeks. The challenge does not end there. As recent history has shown in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes, the horse also needs a jockey with unflappable patience and calm: Moving too soon is a killer going a mile and a half at Belmont Park. And through all three races, finally, luck be the lady that makes winners and breaks hearts.

[+] EnlargeI'll Have Another
Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/Getty ImagesIt was the ultimate chase followed by the ultimate letdown. We'll have to wait at least another year before we see another Triple Crown winner.

It certainly appeared, given I'll Have Another's game and gritty victories in the Derby and Preakness -- he ran down the gifted, front-running speedster, Bodemeister, in the stretch to win both races -- that the colt had the goods to pull it off and give the sport a boost, and at a time when it was buckling under numerous assaults alleging inhumane treatment of horses and the use of legal and illegal medications. It was not to be. Nineteen horses have come to the Belmont Stakes off victories in the Derby and Preakness, only to fail in the last race to the wire, and I'll Have Another's late withdrawal from the event -- thereby losing his chance to make history without even contesting the last leg of the crown -- left those who follow and care about this sport with a particularly keen sense of loss.

For the Triple Crown has become the most romantic quest in sport, a journey that joins horse and rider, ancient companions who have conquered and settled lands throughout history, in an enervating test of speed, endurance, heart, guts and skill. The longer it goes without being won, the greater seems to grow its alluring mystique. Alone, it has become its very own Hall of Fame, an elite reserve grazed and inhabited by only the very best of equine athletes. Not incidentally, a victory by I'll Have Another would have ended the longest dry-spell in the annals of the Triple Crown, which began 93 years ago when a muscular, bold-running chestnut named Sir Barton, a racing giant in his day, won the three races in 1919.

Sir Barton set the precedent. Eleven years later, turfwriter Charles Hatton, looking to replicate the three-race tradition of the English Triple Crown -- the 2000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger Stakes -- began referring to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont as the U.S. "triple crown." By the time Gallant Fox swept it in 1930, when The New York Times headlined the colt, on the front page of its June 8 sports section, as a "Triple Crown Hero," the name had caught on.

"The English had their Triple Crown, and I just thought we needed one of our own in America," Hatton once recalled to this writer. "I just thought the Derby, Preakness and Belmont were the most obvious and made the most sense."

Over the years, it has woven the richest stitch of history in the sport.

Those three races had become a target for young 3-year-olds by the mid-1930s, when Gallant Fox's greatest son, Omaha, won all three, and the series only grew in stature and importance, with the fastest 3-year-olds in America taking dead aim at it. The mighty Man o' War, the celebrated "living flame," did not win it in 1920 because his owner, Sam Riddle, thought at the time that the Kentucky Derby in early May was too early to ask a young 3-year-old to go a mile and a quarter. So Man o' War missed the big dance at Churchill Downs, though he did win the Preakness and Belmont.

By 1937, however, Riddle had changed his mind. He had no qualms about asking Man o' War's greatest son, War Admiral, to run in the Derby. The Admiral won the Triple Crown like a fiery gust of wind, smashing the track record in the Belmont, and a mere four years later came stretch-running Whirlaway, Mr. Longtail, of whom columnist Red Smith once wrote: "When Whirly turned on the heat, your could hear a frying sound." He fried 'em in the Triple Crown, setting a record in the Kentucky Derby and winning the Belmont like a canter around Central Park.

Count Fleet is one of the 10 greatest racehorses America has ever produced, a man among boys wherever he ran, and the famed photo of him galloping home to win the 1943 Belmont Stakes by 25 lengths is hung forever on the walls of turf lore. There he is, a dragonfly embedded in the amber of his time, all by himself, a cloud of dust trailing behind him and a World War II air raid siren on a pole in front of him, racing into history. Assault came home three years later, pounding along like Thumper on his club foot, out-gutting his foes in all three races, the only Triple Crown winner never favored in the betting in any of the three races.

The great Citation breezed to victory in 1948, another Hall of Famer whose speed and stamina were matched only by his consistency and class. What followed Big Cy, after four Triple Crown winners in the decade of the '40s alone, was the least expected development of all: the first major Triple Crown drought, one that seemed an eternity to those of us who grew up in the '50s and '60s waiting for a ninth Triple Crown winner.

It was 25 years, to be exact, before another came along, in 1973 -- a gorgeous, muscular chestnut with three white stockings and a blaze, with the neck and shoulders of a linebacker, and with speed and stamina enough to run with any horse who ever stepped on grass or dirt. Smashing three track records in all three Triple Crown races, and finishing his charge by winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in world record time, Secretariat became the standard against which all others would be measured.

"His only point of reference is himself," said an aging Hatton after witnessing the Belmont. "The most capable racehorse I ever saw."

Two more brilliant horses soon tracked him on to glory.

Seattle Slew won it four years later, cantering home while his rider, Jean Cruguet, stood in the stirrups and thrust his fist in the air. Slew would go on to prove that he was among the fastest, gamest horses ever to wear racing plates. Affirmed won it the next year, in 1978, but his victory became a kind of sidelight to the larger and more dramatic show -- the greatest rivalry in racing history. Alydar had finished second to Affirmed in the Derby and Preakness, losing at Churchill by a length and at Pimlico by a neck, and in the Belmont, after joining Affirmed in battle down the backstretch, the two fought bitterly all the way home, with Alydar snatching the lead briefly with 220 yards to go.

They swept forward as a team, and as they bounded together under the wire, in an instant frozen now in time, Affirmed's right eye had rotated back in its socket and it was staring now at Alydar, like Moby Dick looking back at Ahab lashed to him by harpoon ropes. You could see the white of his eye. Affirmed won by a bob of his head.

Affirmed was the third Triple Crown winner of the 1970s, and jockey Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed, recalls hearing people say that the Triple Crown needed to be made more difficult. "Right after Affirmed won it," Cauthen said, "I remember people saying, 'The Triple Crown has become too easy. We have to make it tougher.' I'm thinking, You gotta be joking!"

Not only the richness of its history, but also its high degree of difficulty as well as its elusiveness as a quest and its charm as a national sporting event, have easily made it the most coveted bauble in racing.

[+] EnlargeAffirmed
Robert Riger/Getty ImagesThe conversation of why no horse has won a Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 becomes a hot-button issue once again.

I'll Have Another's sudden withdrawal from the Belmont field has again forced the racing industry to reflect on why the Triple Crown has become so elusive, why no horse has won it in more than three decades. The reasons can be traced, at least in part, to the changes in the genetic make-up of the breed, changes spurred by a decided shift in the qualities sought in the thoroughbred by those who breed and own them. For most of the 20th century, the thoroughbred gene pool was controlled by old American families that patiently sought to breed horses with the speed to win at a mile, the stamina to win at a mile and a half, and the durability to race sound over several years.

These family dynasties bred horses to race, not to sell, and those qualities of speed, endurance and durability became the time-tested benchmarks on the roadmap guiding those who produced horses such as Sir Barton and War Admiral, Whirlaway and Count Fleet, Citation and Secretariat. As these old breeding dynasties died out, their prized breeding stock fell into the hands of commercial breeders who bred horses not to race, but to sell for profit at gold-plated yearling sales in Kentucky. Breeding horses for speed, rather than for stamina, soundness and durability, may have brought bigger and faster returns on the dollar, but this blind glorification of speed gradually depleted the gene pool of those sturdier markers of stamina and durability. What made this even worse was the fact that the fastest sire lines in America -- the ones that traced, for instance, to Native Dancer and his offspring -- were the most popular lines at the sales but also the least durable and sound. This led, over the years, to the creation of a racehorse that could run very fast but not very far. And not very often, either.

"We have a durability problem, no question about it," says Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew. "And a soundness problem."

Durability and soundness aside, the American racehorse is no longer bred to run a mile and a half, or even a mile and a quarter.

[+] EnlargeI'll Have Another
John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesThe anticipation of ending the 35-year Triple Crown drought was through the roof after I'll Have Another won the Preakness.

It is no wonder, over the past 15 years, that seven colts have come to the Belmont Stakes shooting for the Triple Crown and all have lost, mostly because they could not handle the longest of the three races in the last, sustained drive to the wire. Granted, the jockeys on at least two of those candidates -- Kent Desormeaux on Real Quiet in '98 and Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones in '04 -- moved prematurely, perhaps costing them the race, but in the end they were running on empty in the drive to the wire. As were so many others who tried to make the sweep at Belmont Park, from the great Spectacular Bid in '79 -- the greatest 3-year-old not to win it all -- to the unlucky Silver Charm and the ill-fated Charismatic, who broke down three strides before the wire, to War Emblem, Funny Cide and Big Brown.

The current drought in Triple Crown winners, now 35 years and counting, is 10 years longer than the hiatus between Citation and Secretariat, and this long string of failures, of near-misses, has generated predictable calls to make the series easier -- to space the races from five weeks to 10 or more, or even to shorten the distance of two of the races, making the Kentucky Derby a mile and an eighth, the Preakness 1 3/16 miles (its present distance) and Belmont a mile and a quarter.

That's like changing the World Series to an exercise in tee-ball, or the Super Bowl to a game of touch. Reducing the distances of the Triple Crown races may make some practical sense, given the diminished stamina and durability of the modern thoroughbred, but such a change would constitute a violation of what has become the sport's most hallowed tradition, the Triple Crown -- today the surest signature of thoroughbred greatness. For all purists, by the way, any such change would be tantamount to blasphemy.

If there are any alterations, they ought to be confined to the spacing between the races. The English Triple Crown is spread out over months -- with the one-mile 2,000 Guineas run in May, the 1½-mile Epsom Derby in June and the 1-mile St. Leger in September -- and the spacing of the U.S. Triple Crown has varied over the course of time. Some years, there was only a week between the Derby and Preakness -- in fact, Sir Barton won the Preakness only four days after winning the Derby -- and at times there were four weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, so there is precedent for exercising latitude there.

The thoroughbred today is a fragile beast, far less able to endure the rigors of hard training and hard racing than his forebears, and on Friday I'll Have Another became the latest, but surely not the last, illustration of it.