Watching from the stands at Churchill Downs and then Pimlico Race Course, Doug O’Neill experienced the thrill of victory twice.
“You’re yelling at the top of your lungs. To see your horse win it at the wire, there’s no better feeling,” I’ll Have Another’s trainer said. “It’s incredible.”
Winning the Kentucky Derby was an accomplishment in itself for O’Neill, owner Paul Reddam, jockey Mario Gutierrez and I'll Have Another. The Preakness Stakes kept the party going. But as Reddam said Saturday night, they’re only two-thirds of the way there, with the Belmont Stakes on June 9 remaining as the biggest hurdle yet.
It’s the hardest race to win because of the pressure and the distance, and those are among the reasons no horse has captured the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. But around the sport, there’s a prevailing opinion that it’s winnable despite the 33-year drought.
“I think it is,” O’Neill said last week. “He’s still fresh-legged. If anything, he’s thriving right now. Like every other sport, you’ve got to stay injury-free. If he stays injury-free and healthy, I think he’s the type of horse that could do it.”
Big Brown was the last horse on the verge of the Triple Crown, in 2008, and he was not injury-free. He had a quarter crack in his left- front hoof, suffered in the Preakness. Those around Big Brown said it was minor, but when he did not bring his A-game to Belmont, the injury came into sharper focus.
But so did the question of whether it’s still reasonable for a 3-year-old horse to win the Triple Crown. Colts are raced less often than in previous eras, and to run three times in seven weeks has become out of the norm. That leads some to suggest spreading out the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
“It’s not too tough to win the Triple Crown, it’s just that these fields are always full. It’s all about getting a good trip,” trainer Graham Motion said. “There’s always going to be a horse in the Derby that doesn’t get a good trip, and that’s what makes it so hard to win the Triple Crown. … It’s a remarkable achievement to win the Triple Crown. It shouldn’t be made easier, in my opinion.”
Motion came “that close,” he said, pinching his fingers together, to having two legs of the Triple Crown won with Animal Kingdom last year. He had to deal with seeing a photo of 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford on the grandstand at Pimlico last week, a reminder of what could’ve been.
Though that’s nothing like what trainer Bob Baffert has experienced with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002, when he left Belmont Park just short of the Triple Crown.
“Every time I left there, I think I felt worse for the fans because I felt like I let them down,” Baffert said.
It’s a letdown that has happened 11 times since Affirmed got the job done, and eight times in the past 15 years. That’s a reminder of just how difficult the final piece of the Triple Crown is.
After watching Bodemeister get passed by I'll Have Another just a few yards before the wire, Baffert’s reaction was bittersweet. His horse lost, but racing at least has the chance to see history in Elmont, N.Y.
“I think it’s good for New York and Belmont,” Baffert said. “People like to see history being made. It’s good for any sport.”
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