When I’ll Have Another enters the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, he’ll be attempting to become the twelfth Triple Crown winner – one of racing’s most elusive prizes – and the first since 1978 to accomplish the feat.
I’ve seen every Belmont Stakes since 1987, including nine attempts to complete a Triple Crown. With each failed attempt, the next one becomes a little crazier, a little more emotionally draining. It would be nice to get one over with to reset the clock, so to speak.
The building anticipation got me thinking about those nine attempts – please indulge me in a little reminiscing:
In 1987, Bet Twice romped by 14 lengths, denying arch-rival Alysheba (who finished fourth) his chance at racing history. The two met several times in their careers, each capable of defeating the other on his best day. In 1989, Easy Goer swallowed up Sunday Silence, drawing off to win by 8 lengths over the Derby-Preakness winner. I always suspected Easy Goer was the better horse, but Sunday Silence had a brilliant turn of foot that gave him the advantage, and the Horse of the Year title, over his accomplished rival. For both the 1987 and 1989 Belmonts, I was part of the crowd – which numbered just under 65,000 both years, much less than on recent Belmont Stakes days where a Triple Crown has been on the line. Remarkably, even as daily track attendance has declined dramatically over the years, horse racing’s biggest events continue to grow.
It wasn’t until 1997 that another horse went for the Triple Crown, beginning three consecutive years of attempted sweeps. The popular Silver Charm failed in his effort by three-quarters of a length, unable to hold the lead he had in the stretch. In 1998, a thrilling head-bobbing finish put Victory Gallop a tiny nose in front of would-be hero Real Quiet, the closest margin by which a Triple Crown has ever been lost. The next year, the unlikely former claimer Charismatic finished a gallant third, only to pull up just after the wire with a career-ending injury. Jockey Chris Antley’s concern about his mount – his actions may have saved the horse’s life – will be forever remembered by those who were there.
War Emblem in 2002 began another stretch of three straight Triple Crown attempts, but a stumble at the start cost this free-running colt all chance and he finished eighth to a 70-1 longshot named Sarava. The New York-bred gelding Funny Cide was the potential star in 2003, and he set the pace in the 1 ½ mile marathon before giving way in the stretch to winner Empire Maker and second-place Ten Most Wanted. Only six ran in one of the smallest Belmont fields in recent history.
Smarty Jones was the people’s horse in 2004, and he drew the largest crowd ever to pack Belmont Park, 120,139. This Pennyslvania-based colt drew thousands to early morning workouts at Philadelphia Park as he prepared for the race. But alas, he too had the lead in the stretch but the demanding 12 furlongs proved too much, as he couldn’t hold off longshot Birdstone.
Until this year, only one horse managed to turn the Derby-Preakness double after 2004, and that was Big Brown in 2008. He was the heaviest favorite in the race since Spectacular Bid in 1979, although surrounded by controversy regarding the use of steroids in his earlier races. The colt threw in a clunker on Belmont Stakes day, failing to even finish the race under jockey Kent Desormeaux.
So there you have it... nine tries, nine horses that came up short, but most proved they belonged with exceptional efforts, if not quite good enough. So it has been 34 years since Affirmed won all three races. The game has changed since then, and horses just aren’t bred for the demanding 12-furlong distance these days; nor are they trained for it.
Is I’ll Have Another up to the task? He certainly has trained exceptionally well all spring, without so much as a hiccup to interrupt his schedule. I’ve been watching him these past few mornings, and he completes his gallops with gusto and seems to be enjoying everything around him. He will face formidable challenges from fresh horses, but he may very well win it all.