For racing fans old enough to remember Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed winning the Triple Crown, many subsequent attempts to sweep the series have seemed almost sacrilegious. Horses such as Real Quiet, Funny Cide, Charismatic and Big Brown didn’t deserve to put their names on a short list with the sport’s all-time greats.
When I’ll Have Another tries to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, purists might have reason to feel the same way. Based on his achievements to date, the colt does not yet deserve the adjective “great.” He is certainly no Secretariat. Yet as a purist who watched the last three Triple Crown winners, I will be cheering wholeheartedly for I’ll Have Another to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
The colt is surrounded by an engaging cast of characters. Jockey Mario Gutierrez is a likable and modest young man whose sudden rise from racing’s minor leagues is a marvelous success story. Owner Paul Reddam is a former philosophy teacher and an erudite, passionate student of the sport. Trainer Doug O’Neill has a personality that lit up the TV screen after the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
My fellow horseplayers may ask: How can you root for a cheater like “Drug O’Neill,” with his history of racing violations? I can easily believe that O’Neill was one of the many U.S. trainers who employed the procedure known as “milkshaking” before the racing industry was testing for evidence of it. But I have scrutinized O’Neill’s more recent statistics and the records of his horses, and I see nothing that looks remotely suspicious.
O’Neill received a suspension last week for an infraction in 2010, but the horse in question was so consistently mediocre that it is almost unimaginable that any larcenous intent was involved. I believe O’Neill is now an honest trainer, and there is no reason to suspect that any of I’ll Have Another’s achievements are tainted.
But the main reason to root for I’ll Have Another is that U.S. horse racing has never needed a shining moment as badly as it does now — a moment that reminds the nation why thoroughbred racing has been a great and compelling sport for centuries.
America’s racing industry has been suffering from a variety of ills for years. Its business has been in sharp decline since the economic crisis of 2008. The sport has failed to produce thoroughbred stars — particularly ones who compete in the Triple Crown series — who can stir the interest of the public at large.
Though most of racing’s woes are national in scope, no segment of the industry has been so beleaguered as New York’s. The New York Racing Association has been a perennial whipping boy for politicians and editorialists, and the anti-NYRA crusade reached a climax this spring when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) executed a virtual state takeover over the sport — not a happy prospect.
Horse racing’s problems are so deep that they are surely not going to be cured in any sense by I’ll Have Another. But perhaps the spectacle of 100,000 people cheering a Triple Crown winner can give the sport a national boost and underscore its importance in New York. That alone is a good reason for racing fans to cheer for I’ll Have Another.
Can he succeed?
I’ll Have Another is facing three rivals capable of beating him: Paynter, Dullahan and Union Rags. But there are grounds for doubt about all three.
Paynter, trained by Bob Baffert, is a rapidly improving colt who won a minor stakes at Pimlico in his last start. He undoubtedly has a bright future, but with only four career starts he probably doesn’t have enough seasoning for the mile-and-a-half Belmont.
Dullahan, the third-place Kentucky Derby finisher, worked a half-mile in a sizzling 45.97 seconds this week and appears ready to fire his best shot. But Dullahan’s late charge in the Derby was something of an illusion; the early pace was fast and the leaders were tiring. Over the years, such horses who make belated rallies in the Derby have often been disappointments in the Belmont.
Union Rags was considered the top colt of his generation until he suffered defeats in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. In both races, jockey Julien Leparoux managed to break slowly, drop too far back, get caught in traffic and rally too late. A change in riders to John Velasquez will help the colt, but it is uncertain that he would have won either of those races with a perfect trip. He may not be as talented as people once thought.
None of these rivals can beat I’ll Have Another if he duplicates the quality of his performance in the Preakness. He ran a powerful race, in fast time, surging past the formidable Bodemeister, even though the leader had everything in his favor after setting a slow pace.
Of course, there is no certainty that I’ll Have Another will duplicate this effort. The gods of racing always find a way to defeat less-than-great horses in the Triple Crown.
Yet it may be premature to conclude that I’ll Have Another is permanently in the less-than-great category. After his slow, perfect-trip Kentucky Derby win, I would have scoffed at the notion that he could be a Triple Crown winner, but he improved by at least five lengths in his victory at Pimlico. He’s still young, and he could make another great leap forward to establish himself as one of the sport’s true elite. Like most racing fans, I hope it will happen on Saturday.
For previous Andrew Beyer columns go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.