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A trip through history with horse racing's Triple Crown

There's a connection between the 11 previous champions and I'll Have Another, who has a chance to join them with a victory Saturday in the Belmont.

June 07, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Affirmed, right, with jockey Steve Cauthen battles Alydar and jockey Jorge Valasquez down the final stretch at the Belmont Stakes in 1978. Affirmed, which won the race, is the last horse to have captured the Triple Crown.
Affirmed, right, with jockey Steve Cauthen battles Alydar and jockey Jorge… (Associated Press )

ELMONT, N.Y. — The Triple Crown of horse racing is a sports heirloom. It is your great-grandmother's wedding ring, passed down the line, still glamorous in its nicks and smudges.

The J. Paul Reddam/Doug O'Neill colt I'll Have Another will be running a mile and a half Saturday in the Belmont Stakes for the right to hoist a 34-year-old virgin. That is a silver trophy, designed in loose likeness of its 11 predecessors, but unencumbered by previous ownership.

Each of the 11 previous Triple Crown winners got separate trophies for their owners. After they were awarded, a new one was produced and, most recently, the current trophy was displayed at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville, awaiting ownership. It is a true homebody, traveling only for real suitors. The trophy has left town only 11 times — always to this same destination — since its creation immediately after Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978. Until Wednesday, its most recent trip was 2008, when Big Brown broke its heart and sent it back home to the museum shelf.

Darren Rogers, communications director for Churchill Downs, brought racing's silver chalice here Wednesday. He transported it through the airport in a box, on rollers.

"I was afraid my rental car might get carjacked," Rogers said.

After it became known what he had, people stopped to take pictures. On the plane, they strapped the box in the seat next to Rogers. Once he got it to Belmont Park, having avoided any harm, Rogers relaxed and two security guards took over.

In so many ways, at this historic track on Long Island, the past 11 Triple Crown winners and the current contenders converge:

1919 — Sir Barton wins the first Triple Crown before it is even called that. After the next sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, a New York writer coins the phrase. Even when he wins the big-three races, Sir Barton is overshadowed by the more popular Man o' War, who was winning nine of 10 as a 2-year-old. Sir Barton wins the Kentucky Derby May 10, the Preakness May 14, the Withers Stakes May 24 and the Belmont June 10.

O'Neill, trainer of I'll Have Another: "To win a Triple Crown has to be a 'wow' moment."

1930 — Gallant Fox wins the Preakness, then the Kentucky Derby eight days later, in a schedule flip-flop. He is so social that his trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, trains him in relay style. He likes other horses around him, but no one can keep up.

Dale Romans, trainer of second-choice Dullahan for the Belmont: "I hope there are 120,000 people booing me Saturday when I leave the track."

1935 — Omaha, the son of Gallant Fox, wins the Belmont in driving rain. His owner is William Woodward, who also owned Gallant Fox and remains the only two-time Triple Crown owner. Omaha loses the horse-of-the-year voting to Discovery, who beat him later in June. Later, Omaha is often paraded at the Omaha track, Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backward).

Wayne Lukas, trainer of Belmont entry Optimizer, and winner of 13 Triple Crown races: "At this time, with clouds circling over racing…with medication issues and security barns, it [a Triple Crown] would be a great boost for us."

1937 — War Admiral is the son of Man o' War. He delays the start of the Belmont for 10 minutes by repeatedly breaking through the starting gate before it opened. He is buried next to his father in Lexington, Ky.

O'Neill: "This has been an unbelievable ride."

1941 — Whirlaway goes through eight jockeys before trainer Ben Jones settles on Eddie Arcaro. The unruly horse goes to the front in the Belmont after a mile, even though Arcaro doesn't want that. In a career of 60 starts, he wins 35 times.

Ken McPeek, training Unstoppable U and Atigun for this Belmont — and trainer of 2002 winner Sarava, who paid $143.80 and deprived War Emblem of a Triple Crown: "Nobody was throwing stones at me on the way out. It was fine."

1943 — Count Fleet is owned by a former sportswriter who saw the light and started a rental car business. His name is John Hertz. Count Fleet wins the Belmont by 25 lengths, bows a tendon and never races again.

O'Neill, asked who does the tweets on I'll Have Another's Twitter account: "The horse, but he has a hard time with his hoofs on the keys."

1946 — Assault weighs less than 1,000 pounds, is barely 15 hands tall, limped when he walks, has liver and bleeding difficulties, plus bad ankles and knees. He wins the Belmont by three lengths and, when eventually retired, produces no thoroughbred offspring.

Jockey Mario Gutierrez, who rides I'll Have Another, was asked about Belmont's size: "The track in Mexico City is pretty big too."

1948 — Citation not only wins the Triple Crown but produces a winning steak that continues through 1950 and reaches 16. That sets the bar high for modern-day stars Cigar and Zenyatta.

Ahmed Zayat, owner of Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister and Belmont fourth choice Paynter: "We have an incredible horse in I'll Have Another."

1973 — Secretariat. Wins Belmont by 31 lengths. Statue in Belmont's paddock. Enough said.

O'Neill: "This experience has been more energizing than draining."

1977 — Seattle Slew becomes the first undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown. His jockey, Jean Cruguet, is so confident, he risese in the irons to wave to the crowd before the Belmont finish line.

Lukas on the need now to win enough money just to get into the Triple Crown: "It's more elusive because it's more than just a three-race series."

1978 — Affirmed wins the races and Alydar becomes a legendary runner-up. The image is indelible. Head-to-head. Steve Cauthen shifting the whip to his left hand.

O'Neill, on how he has managed the stress: "Tequila."

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