Three years ago, 29,446 thoroughbreds were born, or foaled, in the United States, which means there were roughly 29,446 Triple Crown dreams. Only one dream has endured, made it this far, to this moment that's dense with significance; or rather all the dreams have come to reside in just one horse.
Having won the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, I'll Have Another can complete a sweep of the famed series with a victory in Saturday's Belmont Stakes in New York. In other words, he could become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first since Affirmed 34 years ago. Or I'll Have Another could become the 12th horse in 34 years to travel to Belmont Park with a chance for a historic and glorious sweep, but then fail. Which will he be?
The New York failures are lessons in what can go wrong; they're reminders of just how difficult this sweep of horse racing's jewels has become. The sheer improbability of a sweep is daunting, staggering even.
A sweep wasn't nearly as difficult in 1919, when Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner. He emerged from a crop of only 2,128 -- that is, he was one of 2,128 thoroughbreds foaled in this country in 1916. Even in the 1940s, the foal crop never rose above 8,800. But the sweep has become increasingly difficult since then. By 1970, when Secretariat was foaled, the crop had grown to 24,361, and in 1975, Affirmed's year, to 28,271.
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A sweep also has become more difficult simply because this uniquely baroque piece of jewelry has assumed an exalted place in both sport and popular culture. That wasn't always the case. The descriptive phrase that joined the races in a jeweled series wasn't coined until 1930, and the Triple Crown as the sport's Holy Grail is a modern phenomenon. Man o' War, who won the 1920 Belmont by 20 lengths, didn't even run in the Kentucky Derby. When Count Fleet swept the 1943 Triple Crown, he defeated a total of 14 horses in the three races. I'll Have Another beat 19 in the Kentucky Derby alone.
The Triple Crown series confronts horses with situations they've never seen and are unlikely to face again, as well as logistical and practical obstacles that can overwhelm even the staunchest competitors -- different environments, distinct racing ovals, fresh challengers along the way and varying distances, all of them demanding, and all of it wrapped up in a five-week package of travel and stress. But this final jewel, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, has become most problematic, for it seems to bring out the best and the worst in both horses and jockeys.
Spectacular Bid, Smarty Jones and Big Brown all seemed unbeatable when they crossed the Hudson, but they all failed in the Belmont Stakes. In 2004, the drought seemed about to end when Smarty Jones took an advantage of more than three lengths into the stretch, but the diminutive and determined Birdstone ran down the leader in the final yards to win by a length, leaving the crowd of more than 120,000 dumbstruck with disappointment. A moment later, as the horses were pulling up and their connections rushing onto the track, the winning trainer, Nick Zito, went immediately to John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones, and said, "I'm so sorry."
Big and bizarre
Strange things seem to happen in the Belmont Stakes. This is where War Emblem stumbled coming out of the gate, where Pleasant Colony, apparently disturbed on his way to the paddock, became fractious and glowed with nervous perspiration in the post parade, and where jockey Kent Desormeaux, after some early trouble and a wide trip, eased Big Brown in the stretch. This is where Spectacular Bid lost for the first time in 1979, finishing third after stepping on a safety pin the morning of the race.
With a victory, they all could have completed a sweep of the Triple Crown, but with their losses, they instead became thunderous reminders that anything can happen in a horse race.
But why is the Belmont Stakes, more than any other race, it seems, so peculiar, even bizarre? Why since 1978 has it foiled more Triple Crown bids than the Kentucky Derby and Preakness combined?
The main reason, quite simply, is size. The distance of the race and the vastness of the Belmont oval, which is the largest in the country, can overwhelm and confound. Most trainers have little experience preparing a horse to run 1 1/2 miles. And jockeys have little or no experience riding 1 1/2 miles around a 1 1/2-mile oval.
"More jockeys have lost the Triple Crown than horses," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won two-thirds of the series with three horses: Tabasco Cat, who didn't win the Kentucky Derby; Thunder Gulch, who didn't win the Preakness; and Charismatic, who in 1999 finished third in the Belmont Stakes.
"It's easy, I realize, for us trainers to sit back and question riders and to say, 'What were you thinking?'" Lukas said. "But I think a lot of these jockeys who lost the Belmont with horses that could have won the Triple Crown would, if they're honest with themselves, admit they should have done things differently."
Both Churchill and Pimlico have a one-mile oval. Belmont's track is 50 percent larger. And so if a jockey makes his move as he usually would elsewhere, he has moved too early at Belmont. Much too early.
Charismatic had rallied from seventh to win the Kentucky Derby and from 10th to win the Preakness, but in the Belmont, jockey Chris Antley sent Charismatic after the early leader, the filly Silverbulletday, when the field straightened up for the run down the backstretch. Charismatic grabbed the lead at the top of the stretch, but faltered late, finishing about 1 1/2 lengths behind Lemon Drop Kid.
And then just beyond the wire, Antley jumped off Charismatic, who had fractured his left foreleg.
"Charismatic was taken out of his game," Lukas said. "Suddenly in the Belmont he was chasing Silverbulletday. I don't want to say anything negative about Antley, but he really wasn't himself all week."
Antley, who had a history of substance abuse, died the next year in California. The coroner attributed the death to a multiple-drug overdose.
But Antley's premature move isn't unique. Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who has won two Belmonts, said Spectacular Bid (with jockey Ronnie Franklin), Real Quiet (Desormeaux) and Smarty Jones (Stewart Elliott) all lost in New York because their riders erred, moving too early.
But the opposite can occur, too, the distance working its intimidation to encourage a rider to take a horse back too far, as some might suggest Jorge Velasquez did with Pleasant Colony. And to this day, Richard Dutrow, the trainer of Big Brown, blames the only loss in the colt's career on Desormeaux.
At the very least, it would seem that jockeys have contributed significantly to this Triple Crown frustration. But in the end, somebody had to be good enough to step up. And the quality of the competition, as much as anything, probably has contributed to the difficulty of a sweep.
Sunday Silence would have won the Triple Crown if not for Easy Goer. On the other hand, Easy Goer would have swept the Triple Crown if not for Sunday Silence. But they were both born in 1986, which, as it turned out, guaranteed there would be no Triple Crown winner in 1989.
"War Emblem stumbled, but my other horses both ran their races, they ran hard, they ran well, but they just got beat," said trainer Bob Baffert, who has gone to New York three times with a horse that had a chance to sweep the series. In 1997, Silver Charm led in mid-stretch and lost in the final yards to Touch Gold, who rallied outside. The next year, Real Quiet led by four lengths in mid-stretch, only to lose by a nose to Victory Gallop.
Perhaps Silver Charm, famous for his determination, didn't see Touch Gold charging until it was too late, and perhaps Desormeaux moved too early on Victory Gallop. But, Baffert said, very good horses won those races. The quality of the competition caught up with Silver Charm and Real Quiet in New York.
Will the competition, such as Union Rags and Paynter and Dullahan, catch up with I'll Have Another? Will young jockey Mario Gutierrez succumb to the vastness of it all? Will something bizarre happen? Or will I'll Have Another become the 12th Triple Crown winner? Those are questions for later this week.