June 6, 2012

I'll Have Another... Triple Crown

As a child of the eighties, I grew up amidst the longest drought on record between Triple Crown winners but never waned in my passion for thoroughbred racing. Thanks in large part to living within an hour's drive to historic Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas and having a father involved in a racing partnership with several horses to keep me interested.

Also being a pre-generation x'er, I grew up listening to bands such as Tesla, whose song "Signs" keeps coming to my mind in thinking about this Saturday's Belmont Stakes. (Although, I must point out that the song was originally cut in 1970 by Five Man Electrical Band and written by Les Emmerson, but I digress.)

Original lyrics follows..

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs
Blocking up the scenery, breaking my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?

Oh but say now, "Mister, can't you read?
You got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat
You can't watch, no you can't eat
You ain't supposed to be here"
Why would I think this song applies to I'll Have Another and his attempt at racing immortality?
Consider these "signs"...

1) There have been 11 Triple Crown winners to date but also 11 horses have failed in their final attempt since Affirmed last completed the hat trick back in 1978.  So it was very fitting today when IHA drew post #11.

2) Just as our racing community was expecting a Triple Crown winner to be the salvation of a sport in such need of a hero after the drugs, declining soundness and welfare of the horse, and jurisdictional infighting over casinos, trainer Doug O'Neil was convicted of a repeat drug violation in 2010 from California the week prior to his horse's date with destiny. And after Rick Dutrow's numerous racing violations exposed prior to Big Brown's shocking DNF in the 2008 Belmont Stakes, many out there will be rooting against this horse come Saturday.  Casual observers may also assume this was a "fixed" horse, regardless of the extensive security and quarantine to ensure that no starters will be tampered with for 72 hours prior to the race.

3) In the "You ain't supposed to be here" category, the scant $11,000 IHA sold for as a yearling and the $35,000 he was flipped for ("pinhooked" in racing parlance) as a two year-old in training is supposed to get you a solid claimer or perhaps even an allowance caliber horse if you're lucky. In no circumstance should this amount lead to a Triple Crown winner who's syndicated value could easily reach $50 million.  Heck, even "the Slew" (TC winner in 1977) sold for more than that at $17,500 thirty-five years ago and he was known as one of the greatest bargains of all time. With inflation of the thoroughbred market, this amount would be closer to 100K in today's dollars, not 10% of that amount. Had haughty sire Bernardini produced such a foal to sweep the Triple Crown we would think it foreseeable as well as acceptable.  But for the winner's sire to be so far down the lineage (a great-grandson) of Mr. Prospector who only registered one Grade I victory in his racing career and have a girly name like Flower Alley?  Really... c'mon!!

4) Consider all the similarities between I'll Have Another and 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Smarty Jones - who was also thought to be a shoe-in leading into the Test of Champions. Both horses descend from the Mr. Prospector male family and have a stalking style of running, suited nicely for the typical Belmont Stakes. Both were unbeaten in their three year-old campaign but still didn't get the respect they probably deserved heading into Kentucky (although Smarty did go off favored by post-time). Both had strong regional affiliations and support - with Smarty it was his cult following from Philly Park and Oaklawn Park and with IHA it's the west coast pride of team O'Neil/Reddam who are unabashed Californians. Both horses wrangled with high quality speedballs in the Derby-Preakness (Lion Heart and Bodemeister, respectively) who bowed out for the 12 furlong Belmont Stakes. Both had an old Derby foe who sat out the Preakness while waiting for them in the Belmont Stakes. For Smarty Jones that foe was Birdstone and with IHA it's both Dullahan and Union Rags (he and Birdstone both were precocious juveniles winning the Champagne Stakes). And the final yet perhaps most relevant similarity, both have jockeys who were untested in classic races but put in superb rides the first two legs heading into Big Sandy. I was present in Elmont, NY for Stewart Elliott's ride aboard Smarty and I still believe that he got the horse beat by moving too soon on that day. Within a few days we will know if the happy-go-lucky Mario Gutierrez will still be grinning and tearing up with relief or if those tears turn to sorrow.

5) Finally, how ironic is it that England's Queen Elizabeth (a huge thoroughbred racing fan and owner who attended the Epsom Derby just this weekend) is celebrating her 60 years under the "Crown" in the same week American racing has their most important moment in nearly 40 years?

"And the sign says, you gotta have a membership card to get inside."  That is exactly what the eleven preceding members of the Triple Crown fraternity are sorting out right about now. Will I'll Have Another hear his name announced as the white smoke billows out of Belmont Park's grandstand around 5:35 central time on Saturday or will the hopes and dreams for #12 go down in flames at the hooves of Dullahan or Union Rags?  It all depends on how you interpret the signs.