ELMONT, N.Y. — Since Seattle Slew won the 1977 Triple Crown, co-owner Sally Hill has watched from Belmont Park as several horses fell short. Since Affirmed in 1978, co-owner Patrice Wolfson wasn't ready to let go for a long time.
As they witnessed the failed attempts together along with Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery, the bond grew stronger.
"I will never forget after several times when we, Penny and Patrice and I, were at the Belmont and there was a shot at a winner," Hill recalled. "Penny afterwards would come over and say to me, 'We still belong to a very small club.' "
It's a club of just 11 horses who represent standard for greatness in Thoroughbred racing. But as I'll Have Another tries to earn his membership card in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, he will unquestionably become one of the greats if he finishes off the Triple Crown. That's because it has become an even more grueling challenge than 30-plus years ago.
"It's got to the point where it's not a Triple Crown anymore, it's a five- or six-race series," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who pointed to the challenge of needing victories and earnings just to get into the Kentucky Derby. "That's what makes it so tough. He's got to put five of them in a row now."
I'll Have Another has put four of them in a row, but if he falls short in the Belmont, he'll join a less-exclusive club of horses who might've been some of the best of all-time but didn't get their names engraved on the Triple Crown trophy to prove it.
There seems little debate, aside perhaps from Dullahan's confident trainer, Dale Romans, that I'll Have Another is the best horse of this crop of 3-year-olds.
"He's the best horse. But you've got to remember that the best horse was Smarty Jones, the best horse was Big Brown, Charismatic, War Emblem, Real Quiet. You go right down the line," Lukas, who had two near-misses, said of some of the 11 horses who have missed their chance at a Triple Crown since Affirmed won.
"We all stood here and thought they were the best horse, too. You can't mail it in; you've got to go do it."
Those associated with the three Triple Crown winners of the modern era, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, have been there and done it.
"It's difficult to get through those three races at 100 percent and you have to be 100 percent for each and every one," said Affirmed's jockey, Steve Cauthen. "It just doesn't take much to throw it offline. You have to have everything go right, the stars have to be aligned, everybody has to be on the same page that's in the camp. And luckily for our three teams that's how it was."
But as Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte, said, the game has changed a lot since the 1970s. He was referring to horses running longer distances and being better prepared for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, but Lukas said bigger fields in each of the Triple Crown races shouldn't be overlooked as a reason why it hasn't happened in so long.
"Those races are hard on horses because there is no break in them. If you run with five or six horses you can sometimes get a break in the race," he said. "But when you got 20 horses, somebody's always laying on you, pushing you, cutting you off, stopping you, putting pressure on your speed horse, whatever. So the racing is a lot tougher than it used to be."
Affirmed needed to beat just five horses to win the 1978 Belmont after six in the Preakness and 10 in the Derby. The most horses any of those modern Triple Crown champions had to beat was 14, by Seattle Slew in the 1977 Derby. I'll Have Another beat 19 others in the Derby, 10 in the Preakness and would need to beat 11 in the Belmont.
In getting to this point, I'll Have Another has already proven plenty.
"Any horse that won the Santa Anita Derby, the top race in California, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, is a great horse already," said trainer Ken McPeek, who will saddle long shots Unstoppable U and Atigun in the Belmont. "He didn't even have to win [the Belmont] for his legacy to be strong."
But ask those who captured the Triple Crown and those who came impossibly close and the gulf is plenty wide. Cauthen said after winning it, it's impossible to root against another horse trying to join the club.
Unlike the 1972 Miami Dolphins who celebrate the last undefeated team going down, Chenery believes I'll Have Another can do it, and Turcotte will be cheering along.
"Maybe racing could use a star and he could possibly the star," Wolfson said. "He really loves to run and looks like he wants to win. And he looks like he would be a good successor."
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