The last Triple Crown was won by Affirmed in 1978 when I was three years old. That came on year after Seattle Slew’s win, and just five years after Secretariat demolished his class. I became obsessed with the sport soon after, and wanted nothing more than to see another Triple Crown. It had happened so often that it seemed easy, but since then it has proven to be heartbreakingly difficult. Eleven different horses have won the first two legs since without sealing the deal.
Some of the horses that fell just short have absolutely crushed me. I was certain Sunday Silence would win in 1989. Silver Charm seemed like an absolute lock in 1997. I was very confident in Real Quiet before his Belmont, and even more confident as he held the lead down the stretch. Smarty Jones seemed more than good enough, and Big Brown seemed more like a car than a horse. Each one failed, though, and killed a little piece of my soul in the process.
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Other close calls haven’t been nearly as tough to take, though. There seemed to be no way that War Emblem could lead the way around the Belmont track. Charismatic was a great story, but a clear overachiever. I never really got captured by Funny Cide, either. I would have happily taken the Triple Crown each of those times — and he would have instantly become my favorite horse — but in my mind I was already braced to lose.
For the first time since 2008 we have another chance to end the endless drought. I’ll Have Another has been incredibly impressive, and his biggest foe in this series, Bodemeister, will be watching from back home in California. So, do his chances fit into the first category — the soul-crushers — or the second?
Bovada oddsmakers seem to think a Triple Crown is a longshot. The odds are -250 for ‘no’ and +170 for ‘yes’.
There are six big factors that contribute to the chances of winning the Triple Crown. Here is a look at how I’ll Have Another stands in each:
If you can’t run a mile and a half effectively then you can’t win the Belmont. That seems simple. The problem, of course, is that no horse in North America is built specifically for such long distances anymore, and most can’t handle it.
All you can do is see if the horse has the breeding to run far and hope for the best. On that front the horse is sound. He has a lot of stamina influence in his pedigree — especially on the dam side. He has handled the two races up to this point flawlessly, closing strong and galloping out nicely.
I can’t guarantee he’ll handle the distance, but I’m not terrified that he won’t.
Mario Gutierrez should be a liability. He has ridden in the backwaters of the sport until this winter. His major stakes experience is limited to what he has done on this horse. He’s young and raw.
What he has had, though, are two of the finest Triple Crown rides it is possible to have. He has judged his horse and the fields perfectly, stayed out of trouble, and timed his moves with laser-precision. Whether he just has incredible chemistry with the horse, of he’s on the verge of becoming a top-level jockey, there is no denying what he has done, and what he can do.
His lack of experience on the Belmont track is a concern because it is so different, but he plans to ride there quite a bit before the race. If he does that then he’s an asset to this horse in his pursuit.
Is Doug O’Neill tough enough to handle the tremendous pressure he’ll be under? Probably. He is new to this — I’ll Have Another was his first Preakness entrant and will be his first Belmont Runner — but he has campaigned major horses, and he has a very strong support network.
He obviously has this horse dialed in, and he has taken a very smart, patient approach between races. One of the reasons I didn’t like Funny Cide’s chances was I didn’t think trainer Barclay Tagg was good enough. I have no such concerns here.
To win the Triple Crown you have to beat the best three year olds in the country, and most of them at least twice. If that class is formidable, then, it is obviously harder to win it all.
I respect this class a lot, but there is no single giant killer looming in the Belmont Stakes field. I like Union Rags a lot less than most people seem to. Dullahan is impressive, but clearly wasn’t as good in the Derby. Alpha is perhaps my biggest concern, but he is coming off a very poor performance in the Derby. The rest of the potential field ranges from intriguing longshots to total no-hopers.
If I’ll Have Another runs as well as he has in the last two races there isn’t a horse good enough in the field to beat him. That’s a big ‘if,’ though.
The Triple Crown is absolutely brutal. Three races in five weeks against top fields at long distances. Most top horses these days get five weeks between races.
I’ll Have Another’s biggest asset here is that he was so fresh heading into the Derby. He had only run twice this year, and there were nine weeks between the first and second start. He’s as fresh as a horse has been at this stage in a long, long time.
What we have covered so far is very optimistic. It’s important to let history bring us back to earth a bit, though.
We’ve seen Triple Crown attempts featuring better trainers, more accomplished jockeys, horses with better breeding and more accomplishments, and weaker fields of opposition. They have failed. We’ve seen bids end by some pretty underwhelming horses — Da’Tara won when Big Brown was supposed to, and Sarava beat War Emblem.
No matter how likely it appears to be, it is crucial to remember how hard winning the Triple Crown is. It’s far more likely not to happen than it is to happen. Sadly.
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