Last call for I’ll Have Another won’t go down smoothly

Editor’s Note: This story was written in advance of I’ll Have Another’s stunning retirement on Friday. The colt, who was scratched on the eve of the Belmont Stakes due to an injury on his left front tendon, was trying to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.

More than three decades have passed since thoroughbred horse racing has had a Triple Crown winner. But on June 9, I’ll Have Another will attempt to become the first horse since 1978—and 12th in history—to capture the trifecta at the Belmont Stakes in New York.

Affirmed was the last to accomplish the feat, beating runner-up Alydar in all three legs to earn his spot with the immortals. Since then, 11 horses have gone into the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown, but all have fallen short. Those closest to the prize were Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), both of whom were nipped at the Belmont wire. Most recently, it was Big Brown who came up short in 2008 when he mysteriously pulled up at the top of the stretch and didn’t finish the race.

In the end, they all tasted failure. And I’ll Have Another will join them.

I know. It’s a pretty bold statement from a guy who is still waiting for his Kentucky Derby picks to cross the finish line. I’ll Have Another opened at minus-240 odds that he won’t win the Triple Crown and plus-200 he will, but the line has shifted to minus-170 and plus-150, respectively, as of press time.

But we won’t see a 12th Triple Crown winner this year. Why, you ask? Here are a few reasons:

Schedule/distance: For a horse to capture the Triple Crown, it has to win three grueling races in a five-week span. That alone is tough in an era in which horses often are lightly raced and not accustomed to a compressed schedule. Also, the Belmont is run at 1½ miles—a distance no horse entered has ever run in its career. Distance is what doomed Smarty Jones in 2004. Arguably the most popular contender with the public since Affirmed, Smarty Jones entered the Belmont unbeaten in eight starts and set a blistering pace early on, only to be caught by Birdstone in the stretch and finish second.

I’ll Have Another is also the only horse entered in the Belmont to have raced in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, meaning his foes are working on more rest as they prepare for this race.

Inexperience in the saddle: Mario Gutierrez has gone from being an unknown quarter-horse and bush-track jockey to being one win away from racing immortality. Problem is, Gutierrez has never raced at Belmont Park before this week, and that could be a problem. It was such a big concern that I’ll Have Another’s handlers brought in Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey to help Gutierrez get acclimated with the track.

The unknown: Spectacular Bid found all the trouble he could handle in his stall before the 1979 Belmont. His handlers discovered a safety pin embedded in one of his hooves, and he wound up a disappointing third.

How good was Spectacular Bid? The 1982 Hall of Fame inductee ranks 10th on The Blood-Horse magazine’s Top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred Champions of the 20th century following a career in which he won 26 times in 30 races. Bottom line: Anything can happen during race week.

That said, I’ll give you three Belmont contenders posing the biggest threat to I’ll Have Another’s historic quest. And it starts with Union Rags. Yes, I took him in the Kentucky Derby and got clobbered when he finished seventh. Obviously, excuses are weak, but Union Rags lost the Derby 40 feet out of the starting gate and had problems the rest of the way. Jockey Julian Leparoux was so much to blame for the loss he was removed from Union Rags in favor of John Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont aboard Rags to Riches.

Union Rags, who sat out the Preakness, comes fresh into the Belmont. And if the track comes up sloppy, he wins it going away. Mother Nature was the main reason Funny Cide, winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes on fast tracks, came up short in the Belmont. It rained all day before the race, he got stuck along the rail where the mud was deepest and finished a dismal third.

I am also high on deep closer Dullahan, who finished a gutsy third in the Derby. Trainer Dale Romans has his chestnut colt sitting on a huge race, plus he’s bred to get the distance. Dullahan gets a jockey change as well, with Javier Castellano climbing aboard in place of Kent Desormeaux.

My third horse to watch is Paynter, who finished fourth to I’ll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby in just his second career start. The Bob Baffert-trained standout has looked good leading up to the Belmont, and a win would help ease the sting the trainer felt when his other colt, Bodemeister, finished a close second to I’ll Have Another in both the Derby and the Preakness.

My pick? Dullahan wins on a fast, “regular” surface, but Union Rags triumphs if the track is sloppy. Regardless, Triple Crown winner No. 12 will have to wait at least one more year.

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