Editor's Note: I'll Have Another has been scratched from the Belmont.
I’ll Have Another thrilled horse racing fans with similar come-from-behind wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and the Doug O’Neill-trained horse has the oppotunity to win the elusive Triple Crown on Saturday. In the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, Nathan Rush chronicled the difficulty in achieving horse racing immortality.
The Belmont Stakes is the oldest, longest and most demanding race for those chasing the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. And as with any goal worthy of tireless pursuit, attaining the ultimate crown jewel in the sport of kings is not easy.
In order to contend for the Triple Crown, horse and human alike must survive an endurance challenge whose finish line is in Elmont, N.Y., just outside New York City.
The 1 1⁄2-mile at Belmont Park tests the stamina of the three-year-old thoroughbred racehorses. The run is a quarter-mile longer than the 1 1⁄4-mile at Churchill Downs in Louisville and significantly longer than the 1 3⁄16-mile at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
The Triple Crown’s grueling schedule also tests the mental toughness and intestinal fortitude of the trainers, who are tasked with making sure their multi-million-dollar athletes are rested yet ready to run, during an intense five-week stretch — at the Kentucky Derby (May 5), Preakness Stakes (May 19) and Belmont Stakes (June 9).
“There are two weeks between the Derby and Preakness; and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont,” explains Todd Pletcher, a four-time Eclipse Award winning trainer who won the Belmont in 2007 with Rags to Riches, the first filly to win the race in 102 years.
“You have to make sure that your horse is going to be ready to perform on all three of those days.”
Twenty-nine horses have entered the Belmont Stakes having won the Derby and Preakness; only 11 of those achieved Triple Crown immortality with a win at Belmont Park, the most recent being Affirmed in 1978.
Pletcher’s mentor D. Wayne Lukas, however, did capture the “trainer’s Triple Crown” in 1995, by winning all three races with two different horses — Thunder Gulch (Derby, Belmont) and Timber Country (Preakness). With the growing trend of fewer horsemen — such as Pletcher, Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen — taking the reins to train more horses in the elite field of Triple Crown races, the “next Lukas” may be more likely than the “next Affirmed.”
“I learned a great deal from Wayne as well as his son, Jeff. They provided a great foundation for training horses and operating a large stable,” says Pletcher, whose 2012 stable of contenders includes El Padrino and Gemologist.
“It is always very difficult, but I feel we have colts who are well-suited to go the classic distance. They have been training very well.”
The Kentucky Derby may claim to be the “most exciting two minutes in sports” but throughout the 138-year history of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes has been the scene of the most exhilarating few seconds in thoroughbred racing — period. There is no greater moment in the sport than the crowning of a Triple Crown champion, which always takes place in New York.
The question is, after 34 years, will there ever be another thoroughbred capable of capturing the elusive Triple Crown?
“Yes. I think it can be done. Some have come very close since then,” says Pletcher. “I think it’s only a matter of time before it is accomplished again.”
TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS
There have been 11 Triple Crown winners in history, broken up by three significant dry spells — with an 11-year gap between the original champion, Sir Barton (1919), and his successor, Gallant Fox (1930); a 25-year break between Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973); and the current 34-year drought since Affirmed (1978).
1919 – Sir Barton
1930 – Gallant Fox
1935 – Omaha
1937 – War Admiral
1941 – Whirlaway
1943 – Count Fleet
1946 – Assault
1948 – Citation
1973 – Secretariat
1977 – Seattle Slew
1978 – Affirmed
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR
Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, there have been 11 horses who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before falling short at the Belmont Stakes.
1979 – Spectacular Bid (3rd in Belmont Stakes)
After waiting 25 years between Citation’s Triple Crown in 1948 and Secretariat’s remarkable run in 1973, the sport nearly witnessed a three-year streak of three-year-olds winning the big three races. But a fluke accident likely prevented a shot at the Triple Crown. Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin on the morning of the Belmont Stakes and — despite taking an aggressive approach and an early lead — faded late in the race, showing behind Golden Act and Coastal.
1981 – Pleasant Colony (3rd)
1987 – Alysheba (4th)
1989 – Sunday Silence (2nd)
1997 – Silver Charm (2nd)
1998 – Real Quiet (2nd)
Bob Baffert’s bay colt Real Quiet — nicknamed “The Fish” due to his slender, sleek, almost aquatic-like build — lost by a nose to the appropriately named Victory Gallop, a Canadian-born stallion who placed second to Real Quiet in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Despite going down to the wire and falling painfully short at Belmont Park, Real Quiet came closer to ending the Triple Crown drought than any thoroughbred to date.
1999 – Charismatic (3rd)
2002 – War Emblem (8th)
2003 – Funny Cide (3rd)
2004 – Smarty Jones (2nd)
2008 – Big Brown (9th, DNF)
Although cocky trainer Rick Dutrow called the Triple Crown a “foregone conclusion,” a hoof injury leading up to the race and a loose shoe on race day resulted in Big Brown finishing last among the nine horses who ran in the Belmont Stakes. Big Brown suffered his first career loss — as 38-to-1 longshot Da’ Tara led wire-to-wire, while the 3-to-10 overwhelming favorite failed to finish after jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled up because he “had no horse.”