Now that I'll Have Another has another scintillating, validating victory on his résumé, thoroughbred racing has another storyline it craves: a live Triple Crown shot.
Unfortunately, this one is likely to end the way the last 11 Triple Crown bids have ended: with heartbreak at the Belmont Stakes.
Since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in an epic series of duels with Alydar in 1978, racing has been on an unprecedented Triple Crown drought of 34 years. Since then, 11 horses have come to New York with a chance to achieve racing immortality and failed. It has become the biggest buzzkill in sports.
And frankly, if Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008) couldn't sweep the Triple, neither can this horse.
Some of those were great horses. A couple of other greats during this drought have lost the Kentucky Derby and then won the second two legs: Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005).
That shows you how hard it is for even the best modern horses to win a Triple Crown. I'll Have Another is a game and talented runner, but he's not ready to join the list of greats yet.
I realize that this makes me the latest in an endless line of I'll Have Another doubters. The poor animal has won five times in seven career races, yet hasn't been the post-time favorite in any of them. In an era when every athlete claims to be disrespected, I'll Have Another actually has been.
That will change June 9th. He will be favored in New York.
Saturday, he thoroughly validated his Derby upset two weeks ago in Louisville by running down Bodemeister yet again. I'll Have Another pulled out a 1½-length victory in the Derby, then budged past the front-runner by a neck in the Preakness in thrilling fashion. Unlike the Derby, Bodemeister had everything go his way at Pimlico Race Course – he set more moderate fractions that should have allowed him to kick home the winner. But I'll Have Another wouldn't allow it, mustering another stirring stretch rally.
Prior to those victories, I'll Have Another won the Santa Anita Derby by a nose, overhauling Creative Cause near the wire. He's the Tim Tebow of horse racing, doing all his dramatic work late.
In the process, a dying sport has had new life breathed into it by previously unknown jockey Mario Gutierrez, controversial trainer Doug O'Neill and a compelling colt who was purchased for a mere $35,000 as a 2-year-old. I'll Have Another has now won more than $2.6 million, a pretty tidy return on investment for owner J. Paul Reddam.
It's a great story. Just don't expect a happy ending. I've seen this movie before.
I was at Belmont when Real Quiet lost by an agonizing nose to Victory Gallop after an interminable study of the photo finish. I was there when Charismatic injured a leg in the stretch while finishing third. I was there when War Emblem stumbled leaving the gate and never got into the race. I was there when Smarty Jones was caught late by Birdstone. I was there when Big Brown bombed.
It's always something. Bad racing luck. Bad ride. Fresher competition. The wear and tear of three grueling races in five weeks, the last one being the longest – an endless 1½ miles.
Given the fragile nature of modern thoroughbreds, the current demands of the Triple Crown seem too much. Almost nobody races their top-dollar horses three times in five weeks anymore, because the current breed doesn't handle that racing load well. I'll Have Another will be trying to buck a significant trend.
One thing in the colt's favor is that he had only raced twice at age 3 prior to this year's Triple Crown, so conceivably he should have enough in the tank to give it a quality run at the Belmont. But he will face others who have had an easier May – specifically Derby third-place finisher Dullahan, who skipped the Preakness, and possibly Union Rags, who was the second betting choice in the Derby but finished seventh after a troubled trip. He sat out the Preakness as well. There will be other challengers who show up, too.
And then there are the questions of how the human connections will hold up for three weeks under an unprecedented glare of publicity.
Bob Baffert, who has taken three swings at the Triple Crown with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem, has said in the past how much the three weeks from Preakness to Belmont wear on a trainer. O'Neill, who has been disciplined multiple times for medication violations with his horses, will have his career record picked over as never before.
Gutierrez, a true nobody rider until the Derby changed his life, will be pulled in more directions than he can imagine. He rode superbly Saturday – placing I'll Have Another in stalking position off the pace, showing remarkable patience before making his move, then controlling his mount as the colt weaved wildly for a few strides in the stretch.
Gutierrez is cool in the saddle, but how about in the Big Apple? Even big-name jockeys like Kent Desormeaux (Real Quiet, Big Brown) have been frayed by the publicity bombardment leading up to the Belmont.
The bottom line is this: only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown for good reason – it's hard to do. And given the state of modern thoroughbreds, the task is harder now than ever.
It will take a superlative animal to do it. I'll Have Another is a great story, but probably not a great enough horse to win the Belmont. The Triple Crown tease seems destined to continue.
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