Since Affirmed captured horse racing’s Triple Crown in 1978, 11 thoroughbreds have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes only to fall short in the final leg, the Belmont Stakes. On Saturday, when I’ll Have Another attempts to join the elite ranks of history’s Triple Crown winners, he’ll be carrying not just 114-pound jockey Mario Gutierrez but the weighty hopes of the sport itself.
Belmont Stakes 2012: I’ll Have Another running with industry’s hopes aboard
Among those pulling for him will be Affirmed’s co-owner Patrice Wolfson, who sees in I’ll Have Another the same zeal for winning that drove her own chestnut champion past archrival Alydar on Belmont Park’s grueling mile-and-a-half track. She also sees a budding star who might help restore some of the prominence horse racing has lost during its 34-year wait for the next Triple Crown victor.
“I certainly think racing needs a horse that can bring a lot of excitement, and this little guy I think can do that,” Wolfson told reporters during a conference call last week.
The question is: Could I’ll Have Another, the colt with a flair for heart-stopping finishes, capture the public’s imagination the way Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat did in achieving the Herculean feat of winning three major races in five weeks in the 1970s? Moreover, could a 2012 Triple Crown winner help revitalize a troubled industry? Or has the 21st century, with its endless forms of entertainment and myriad forms of legalized gambling, left thoroughbred racing behind?
Just four months ago, I’ll Have Another was a lightly regarded colt who had been sold as a yearling for $11,000. He was later resold as a 2-year-old for a modest $35,000. But since February, he has done nothing but prove himself a worthy champion. Never the favorite, he has won every race he has entered in 2012 — including the hallowed Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes — not with brutish power but with cool and cunning, exploding over the final furlong to get his nose out front at the precise moment it matters.
But the world is far different than it was 34 years ago, as is horse racing’s place in it.
Once mainstream entertainment, thoroughbred racing has become more of a niche sport. Even its passionate followers don’t necessarily go the track anymore; they place wagers in casinos, over their computers or via cell phones instead.
And its romantic allure has been tarnished by reports of performance-enhancing drugs, lax enforcement and the breakdowns of finely bred athletes, such as 2006 Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro.
“Having a Triple Crown winner would help racing and the interest in racing,” said Sally Hill, co-owner of Seattle Slew, speaking on the same conference call. “It’s not going to solve all our problems by any means, but I think it would be a great help to bring that interest back.”
Added Affirmed’s former jockey Steve Cauthen: “I think the whole racing world is just dying to have another great horse come along and capture their hearts.”
‘This was greatness’
Hard times have a way of creating a need for heroes. And at key moments in American history, horse racing’s Triple Crown has supplied its share.