Nothing is certain at the Belmont when it comes to the Triple Crown
There are two races at Belmont Park early Saturday evening. In the initial one, I'll Have Another will attempt to become the first horse since Affirmed 34 years prior to win the Triple Crown by taking the 144th Belmont Stakes. That is a straightforward athletic endeavor involving 12 animals and 12 riders. First one under the wire wins and if it's I'll Have Another, he will become just the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. It is one of the rarest significant achievements in sport.
The second race is far more complex -- more of a conflict, one could say. It involves the crisis of conscience that has engulfed the sport of racing since shortly after I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. Reminders quickly followed his victory, noting that I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O'Neill, had accumulated a long list of medication violations; and that his owner, J. Paul Reddam, earned his fortune partly by charging very high interest rates on loans.
There has been no implication that the horse is dirty, but the record of his connections has thrown a discomforting layer of stink over his run at history. "It really should be a feel good story," says Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will send out Optimizer as a long shot in the Belmont. "But I don't think it's going to be."
Racing fans desperate for mainstream relevance and a piece of history to call their own will choose how much to squirm as they celebrate. Surely industry watchdogs -- and most media -- will point out the irony of a convicted trainer making history in a sport beset by horse abuse. Think: A blown-up Barry Bonds hitting all those home runs into the water in San Francisco. The act compels reverence, yet you worry that it's somehow impure.
None of this second race will be relevant unless I'll Have Another wins the Belmont -- which he should. He looked great in surviving to win the Derby and was even better in the Preakness, running down the formidable Bodemeister in the final bounds. "Beat him when Bodemeister wasn't slowing down," says rival trainer Dale Romans, who will try to take down I'll Have Another with Dullahan, who was third in the Derby and skipped the Preakness.
I'll Have Another has trained impressively for more than two weeks at Belmont Park, cruising around the big sandy oval in his signature long gallops and surviving a near-tragic encounter with a loose filly last Thursday. He has an effortless stride that seems to beg for distance and a solid 1 ½-mile pedigree. Since a one-day cough in Baltimore that was treated with antibiotics, he's shown no signs of weakening.
"He's the best horse," says Lukas. "To have him upset, somebody has to have an extra special day. Somebody has to step up a lot more than they have so far."
I'll Have Another is 4-5 on the morning line and Dullahan, the second choice, is all the way up at 5-1. Union Rags, whose talent and promise have been so undermined by lousy racing luck and mediocre (being kind) riding by Julien Leparoux that it's fair to wonder what's left, is 6-1. Trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat, who lost twice with Bodemeister, are sending out Paynter and he's 8-1. The other eight starters are pieces of scenery placed in the starting gate so that NBC's first turn shot looks impressive. (OK, not really. But practically.) So start inscribing that trophy.
Except, don't. Because the Belmont has taught us repeatedly that there is no guarantee when it comes to the Triple Crown. Eleven horses have failed since Affirmed succeeded and finished off the third Triple Crown of the '70s. (There were four winners in the '40s and none between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973, a bizarre statistical oddity.)
The 11 horses who have failed since Affirmed have failed for nearly as many reasons as their number. In 1981, Summing and local-kid jock Georgie Martens got through on the rail to knock off a too-wide and too-tired Pleasant Colony. Six years later Bet Twice was just better than Alysheba and two years after that Easy Goer was just better than Sunday Silence. In 1999, Charismatic broke down. In 2002, War Emblem was a speed horse who needed a perfect break from the gate and instead nearly fell on his face. A year later, Funny Cide ran off in a midweek workout and had nothing left to fight off Empire Maker in the slop.
A year after that, in 2004, a throng of more than 120,000, the biggest crowd in Belmont history, watched as the popular Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott were forced into a backstretch duel into the wind by Jerry Bailey and a no-hope colt named Eddington and then slumped in disappointment as Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in deep stretch. (A Triple Crown try is unlike most sport events for fan and journalist alike; there is a palpable urge to see history and when that fails, a deep hole of disappointment opens beneath our collective feet and sucks us toward the center of the earth. It's silly, but it's real.)
Big Brown was eased in 2008 after dominating the Derby and Preakness. Still waiting for an explanation. And every time the Triple Crown looms, there is the unknown of running 1 ½ miles, further than any of these horses have raced and will ever race again on dirt. And another unknown: When will the horse be hit by the fatigue of running three tough races in five weeks? (Among I'll Have Another's 11 opponents, only Optimizer has run both the Derby and Preakness). Two days before the 2004 Belmont I asked John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones, if he was seeing any signs of fatigue. "A little," said Servis, severely. "Yeah, a little."
Is there a Bet Twice or an Easy Goer to take down I'll Have Another? Not obviously so. Union Rags trainer Michael Matz has dumped Leparoux in favor of John Velazquez, who has ridden thousands of races at Belmont Park and won the 2007 Belmont on the gifted filly Rags to Riches. Velazquez worked Union Rags last weekend at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. "He's a nice horse," said Velazquez. "He hasn't had a chance to run in his last two races. I'm riding to win the race." Surely Union Rags is fresh, five weeks rested.
Dullahan was closing hard in the Derby and had a far less advantageous trip around the Churchill Downs oval than I'll Have Another. "I expect I'll Have Another will get first run on us," says Dullahan's trainer, Dale Romans. "Then we'll try to run him down." But it's a leap of faith to predict that either Union Rags or Dullahan will beat I'll Have Another.
Of course there is another factor: Pilot error. Spectacular Bid, a brilliant racehorse, might or might not have stepped on a safety pin in his stall on the morning of the 1979 Belmont, but he was definitely compromised when jockey Ronnie Franklin, 19, used him too early in the race. Real Quiet was the best horse in the 1999 Belmont, but Kent Desormeaux moved just a little early on the far turn and lost by a nose to Victory Gallop. Lukas says, "More riders lose this race than horses."
I'll Have Another's rider is 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez, whose unlikely rise has been a central theme of the Triple Crown. He has followed a path from poverty in rural Mexico to Mexico City to a minor league track in Vancouver to Southern California. Reddam liked the way he looked on his rare mounts and O'Neill allowed him to ride I'll Have Another one morning in a workout. "He was soooooo nice," says Gutierrez. "I was thinking, they're not going to let me ride this horse in the afternoon."
But they did, and together Gutierrez and I'll Have Another are four-for-four. Gutierrez blessedly encountered little Derby traffic (a crapshoot), put his horse in perfect stalking position and ran down Bodemeister with ease. In the Preakness, he refused to chase Bode and again timed his run perfectly. "That thing that the really good riders have, where they just use their hands?" says O'Neill. "Mario's got that."
Not every expert is raving about Gutierrez's work. Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who is providing analysis for NBC, told me Thursday morning on the Belmont backside: "I was impressed with his ride in the Kentucky Derby. In the Preakness? I was not impressed. He misjudged the pace and the horse bailed him out.'' I suggest to Bailey that maybe Gutierrez simply had confidence in his horse and Bailey said, "That might be true, but it was perilous to let Bodemeister open that kind of lead at a comfortable pace."
The next question becomes whether Gutierrez will croak on the giant stage of the Belmont, where a crowd of more than 100,000 is virtually certain and the weight of five weeks of sudden and crushing celebrity will be weighing on his shoulders.
Between the Preakness and Belmont, Gutierrez went back to Vancouver for a week, to hide from media requests. "People ask me if I'm nervous," said Gutierrez this Tuesday. "I don't know why they ask that. Yeah, sure I'm nervous. But it doesn't matter. I'm going to ride the horse the way I always ride him."
"I do think [Gutierrez] misjudged the pace in the Preakness, and the Belmont is all about judging the pace," said Bailey. "And I think [the other riders] will set themselves up to challenge him in different ways than he's experienced. And that's not unexpected. [Gutierrez] had better assume that it's going to happen. Decisions are going to be required of him that he's never had to make before."
So we stand where we have stood 11 times in the last 33 years: On the cusp of something very rare. If you ask me who will win the race, I say that I'll Have Another will win the race. But I also say I'm not so sure. I can hear Lukas's words: "They have a strange way of getting upset here." So no guarantees here. The streak lives until the streak is broken.