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May 25, 2012

The elusive Triple Crown

By: By Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Thirty-four years ago, a chestnut colt that wintered in California won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. This year, a chestnut colt that prepped at Santa Anita has taken the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

The similarities between Affirmed and I'll Have Another do not end there. The last Triple Crown winner defeated arch-rival Alydar by 1 1/2 lengths on the first Saturday in May and then again by a neck in the Preakness. I'll Have Another ran down his adversary Bodemeister by exactly the same margins in his last two races.

I'll Have Another has one major hurdle left to conquer.

Affirmed won the 1978 Belmont Stakes, a race regarded as the best Triple Crown duel of all-time. On the other hand, I'll Have Another still needs to add one more victory in the "Test of Champions" to secure his place in the pantheon of American horse racing.

Eleven horses have tried to duplicate Affirmed's achievement since 1978, but all have failed for one reason or another.

The first was Spectacular Bid, only a year after back-to-back Triple Crown wins by Seattle Slew and Affirmed. The "Bid," who came into the Kentucky Derby on a 10-race winning streak, defeated General Assembly by 2 3/4 lengths before knocking off just four rivals in the Preakness.

Spectacular Bid was almost a sure thing in the Belmont Stakes. Unfortunately, jockey Ronnie Franklin inexplicably battled 85-1 shot Gallant Best through a third quarter in 23 3/5 seconds after running the first half-mile in 47 3/5. The gray colt failed to hold off Coastal (and Golden Act) through the stretch and wound up third.

Two years later, Pleasant Colony had Triple Crown aspirations after winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but the come-from-behind son of His Majesty was in last place with too much to do after the first half-mile in the Belmont Stakes. The John Campo-trained colt also finished third as the odds-on favorite.

I'll Have Another has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of Spectacular Bid, but one thing to keep in mind is that both colts lost the same number of races (two) heading into the Belmont. I'll Have Another also has more natural speed than Pleasant Colony, so unless he breaks five lengths slow from the gate, he'll be much closer to the early pace than the 1981 Derby winner.

Two more colts - Alysheba and Sunday Silence - had a chance for glory in the second half of the 1980s, but both were defeated by horses that finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Alysheba and Sunday Silence had different running styles as the former used his speed late in races while the latter used it early.

Alysheba was blown away in the Belmont Stakes by Bet Twice, who stole the show by 14 lengths over Cryptoclearance and Gulch. Alysheba wound up fourth as the 4-5 favorite.

Sunday Silence, coming off what is widely considered the best Preakness ever over Easy Goer, could not hold off his arch-rival in the Belmont Stakes. Easy Goer bounded away to an easy eight-length victory.

It's interesting to note that Sunday Silence was the first of the four Derby- Preakness winners after Affirmed to finish second.

I'll Have Another is more comparable to the Charlie Whittingham colt than Alysheba in terms of speed. The main difference between him and Sunday Silence is that there are zero horses in the 2012 field with the quality of an Easy Goer.

Triple Crown Losers In The 1990s

The late 1990s almost mirrored the late 1970s when Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and Charismatic (1999) won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Exactly 20 years earlier, Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), and Spectacular Bid (1979) had taken the first two jewels of the Triple Crown.

Of the three, I'll Have Another's running style is probably closest to that of Silver Charm since the Bob Baffert trainee liked to race near the lead. That colt also won the Preakness by a similar margin (a head) and odds (3-1).

Silver Charm, who was even-money in the Belmont Stakes, had to face his arch- rival Free House, along with Touch Gold, who came into the Test of Champions off a very troubled fourth-place finish in the Preakness. I'll Have Another will only have to hold off the likes of Union Rags and Dullahan, two horses that are not in the same class as the aforementioned colts.

The pace of the 1997 Belmont Stakes was on the slow side (six furlongs in 1:13 4/5), but Silver Charm had to battle Touch Gold's entrymate, Wild Rush, down the entire backstretch. In the meantime, Chris McCarron gave Touch Gold a brilliant ride en route to a three-quarter length score over the favorite.

Real Quiet came the closest of any Triple Crown loser falling by a nose on the bob of the head to Victory Gallop. Still, the horse they called "The Fish" was not considered a major Derby contender because he only won two of his previous seven starts. In that respect, he is nothing like I'll Have Another, who has won all but two of his seven appearances.

Additionally, jockey Kent Desormeaux, who placed Real Quiet less than two lengths off the lead with five furlongs left, rode the race as if he was on Bet Twice instead of Real Quiet.

Charismatic also came into the Kentucky Derby without much success, The son of Summer Squall cantered into the winner's circle only three times in 14 starts prior to the first Saturday in May and one of those victories came via disqualification.

Owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, Charismatic was 31-1 in the Derby and 8-1 in the Preakness before finishing third in the Belmont as the 8-5 favorite. Jockey Chris Antley was widely praised for pulling the horse up right after the wire, but his in-race tactics cost him the victory. The horse usually came from the middle of the pack, but in the Belmont, Antley had him chasing the filly Silverbulletday for the lead.

Four Failures since 2002

War Emblem gave Bob Baffert his third Kentucky Derby-Preakness double when the Illinois Derby winner held off Magic Weisner by less than a length at Pimlico. Unfortunately, the horse stumbled slightly coming out of the gate in the Belmont and was behind a horse (instead of alongside) for the first time in five races. The son of Our Emblem wound up a distant eighth, beaten almost 20 lengths by 70-1 shot Sarava.

The next two years also featured horses racing for Triple Crown glory, beginning with Funny Cide.

The gelding finished second in the Wood Memorial (a half-length behind Empire Maker) but got his revenge with a 1 3/4 length score in the Derby. After murdering his competition by 9 3/4 lengths in the Preakness, a race Empire Maker skipped, Funny Cide was bet down to 1-1 while Empire Maker was the 2-1 second choice in the six-horse field.

As happens so many times in the Belmont Stakes, the Derby-Preakness winner puts forth a race far different than he is used to running. Funny Cide found himself on the lead for the first time since the Louisiana Derby and was run down by Empire Maker, and then eventually by Ten Most Wanted.

Funny Cide was nothing like I'll Have Another as he had lost his three preps prior to the Derby. In addition, Funny Cide had a perfect 3-for-3 record at Belmont Park. In fact, he was the first horse with Derby and Preakness victories that raced over the Belmont surface prior to the third leg of the Triple Crown since Pleasant Colony back in 1981.

In order for I'll Have Another to win the Belmont Stakes, he will have to do so without a start over the track, something that has rarely taken place. To that end, trainer Doug O'Neill brought the colt to "Big Sandy" immediately after the Preakness to get him acclimated to the largest track in the country.

The year following Funny Cide was the year the entire world expected the Triple Crown jinx to be broken. Smarty Jones was 1-5 after winning all eight of his races, including the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths.

Jockeys play an important part in every race but more so in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. Many of them have not had much experience at Belmont Park, a track far different than any other. In addition, when you are riding for the Triple Crown, other jockeys will gang up on your horse in order to prevent it.

That is what happened to Smarty Jones.

Stewart Elliott, who rode mostly at Philadelphia Park, was not as familiar with Belmont Park as was most of the other jockeys in the race. His colt was also the target of both Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, two horses that forced Smarty Jones to run much faster than he should have.

After coasting through the first half-mile in 48 3/5, Smarty Jones and Elliott were pressed into an unbelievably quick third quarter in 23 seconds. The son of Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone then ran a 23 4/5 fourth quarter. That 46 4/5 middle half slowed him down just enough for Birdstone to come on late and win by a length.

Four years later, Big Brown was poised to become the second undefeated Triple Crown winner when he was the odds-on favorite over eight others in the Belmont Stakes. However, rumors floated around that the bay colt was not himself the week of the race and it showed when Desormeaux pulled him up approaching the quarter pole.

There have been 11 horses since Affirmed with a chance to win the Triple Crown and all 11 came up short.

One thing in I'll Have Another's favor is his tactical speed. It will be imperative for jockey Mario Gutierrez not to move too early or too fast, which is sometimes easier said than done.

Trainer Doug O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam are going about their business the right way by bringing in a string of their horses to Belmont Park and having Gutierrez ride them leading up to the Test of Champions.

However, if they don't have a horse in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap, scheduled for the day before the Belmont, it might not matter how many rides the jockey gets. The only perfect simulation will come in a race held at the same distance. If Gutierrez gets to ride in the Brooklyn and the horse gets comfortable in his new surroundings, the rest will take care of itself on race day.

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