RICK BOZICH: Belmont biggest obstacle to Triple Crown hopefuls
ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) -- There is no need to check the Daily Racing Form past performance charts. For more than three decades the Belmont Stakes has delivered an abundance of agony with an absence of ecstasy.
The finest 3-year-old horses in the world compete over a mile-and-a-half, at least a quarter-mile beyond any distance they have ever raced. The journey begins near the center of the massive Belmont grandstand. It typically ends at the Heartbreak Hotel.
Nearly everybody says this year will be different. I'll Have Another, listed as the 4-to-5 favorite after drawing the 11 post position Wednesday, will make it different. They always say that when a horse has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Always.
I'll Have Another is absolutely favored to deliver racing's first Triple Crown in 34 years Saturday. He should be. Belmont will be stuffed with more than 100,000 people. The place sold out the way it only does when a Triple Crown is on the line.
Insert the colt's name in your next casual sports conversation, and I guarantee somebody will tell you how much they will be cheering for I'll Have Another to deliver.
The colt has been trained superbly by Doug O'Neill. Bill Shoemaker couldn't ride with more poise than Mario Gutierrez has shown in the saddle. His challengers are certainly talented, but not particularly imposing.
He was the surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby more than 4-1/2 weeks ago. He was the exhilarating come-from-behind winner of the Preakness in Baltimore May 19. I'll Have Another has shown speed, stamina and courage, the three most essential elements a champion horse must demonstrate.
All systems are go, go, go.
"He's handled the whole journey as good as you could possibly ask a horse," O'Neill said Wednesday. "He's doing great."
But it won't be easy. It's never easy at the Belmont. There are no fluke Triple Crowns. None. Even great runners -- Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence come to mind -- discover that even greatness is not enough to win this race.
These are my Belmont Stakes memories: Savannah Baffert, maybe 5 years old, clinging to her father, trainer Bob Baffert, in the grandstand, wondering out loud if their colt, Real Quiet, had held off Victory Gallop at the wire to win the 1998 Triple Crown.
Victory Gallop won by a nose. Father shook his head. Daughter understood and then immediately told her father it would be OK.
Nobody knows what the Belmont can do to a trainer's optimism more than Baffert. He also missed Triple Crowns with Silver Charm (1997) and War Emblem (2002). Baffert will be pulling for I'll Have Another as enthusiastically as anybody in the country. But there have been moments this spring when Baffert has confessed that he wonders if another Triple Crown will ever be won.
One of the strangest moments I've seen in horse racing came on the Belmont track just beyond the finish line eight years ago. Nick Zito is a trainer who had already won the Kentucky Derby as well as the Preakness.
Zito is a native New Yorker who wanted to win a Belmont, too. Birdstone had given him that victory, upsetting Smarty Jones, whose amazing story had already been slotted for the cover of Time magazine/
But before Zito started celebrating Birdstone's improbable victory, he searched the track for every person connected to Smarty Jones. Zito's message was simple:
He was sorry. Very sorry. Sorry for denying Smarty Jones what was supposed to be his inevitable Triple Crown.
I could go on. There is certainly considerable material.
Charlie Whittingham kicking the ground and howling after Easy Goer upset Sunday Silence in 1989. The relentlessly talkative Rick Dutrow running out of words after Big Brown ran like a big mystery four years ago. War Emblem. Charismatic. Funny Cide. You know the list.
That is what happens in this race. Great horses discover they are not great enough, sometimes by huge chunks of ground, sometimes by a nose.
I'll Have Another is favored to win this Triple Crown. But it won't be easy. It never is.
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