The drought extends back to 1978, when Affirmed beat Alydar for the third time in a row, lastly in the Belmont Stakes. Since then, many horses have flirted with the Triple Crown but have somehow or another been bested in the third, most trying leg of the five-week journey.
Most recently Big Brown in 2008 lost his chance when, turning for home, he was eased by jockey Kent Desormeaux. Big Brown battled foot issues his entire career, but especially the weeks leading up to the Belmont.
It even prompted Desormeaux to tell the New York Times in 2008, “Maybe it was the foot… Who knows? I was talking in the jockey room, and I can’t fathom what kind of freaks those 11 Triple Crown winners were.”
Before Big Brown, Smarty Jones lost in 2004, Funny Cide in 2003, War Emblem in 2002, Charismatic in 1999, Real Quiet in 1998 and Silver Charm in 1997, among others.
That’s what I’ll Have Another is up against as he schooled in the paddock this past weekend, not to mention heavy contenders like Dullahan and Union Rags turning in blistering workouts, signifying they are ripped and ready to run.
Dullahan, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness Stakes, worked four furlongs in a bullet 45.97 and galloping out in 58 and change.
“When he works like that, he runs big,” said Romans. “He looked like he was galloping, and when we got back to the barn he recovered quickly. He wasn’t blowing. I think he’s ready.”
Javier Castellano will have the mount.
Union Rags, the Kentucky Derby favorite who also skipped the Preakness, worked at the Fair Hill Training Center for trainer Michael Matz. The Dixie Union colt drilled five furlongs in 59 seconds flat.
After suspect piloting in Union Rags’s prior two starts (Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby), Julien Leparoux was replaced by John Velazquez. It was Velazquez who won the Belmont Stakes aboard the filly Rags to Riches five years ago.
“I’m glad Johnny [Velazquez] made the effort to come down and sit on him,” said Matz. “Johnny seemed to like him and he seemed to do that easy enough.”
“Excellent, man,” added Velazquez. “Very easy. It was a little faster than we had planned, but it was very easy. Very impressive. Hopefully, we can keep him like that for Saturday!”
Union Rags suffered from a brutal trip in Kentucky and still strided home in seventh place. He hasn’t won since the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth in Gulfstream this winter. He since followed that effort with a third-place finish in the Florida Derby, then the seventh-place finish in Kentucky.
The Belmont contenders will have another ripple to endure. They will be monitored in the stakes barn, a security or “detention” barn, starting Wednesday, June 6. Reason being the New York Racing Association wants to keep these horses under tight surveillance should there be any illicit tampering.
The goal is transparency, but the worry is disrupting the habits of these creatures. I’ll Have Another’s trainer Doug O’Neill puts it best:
“I know the other guys will probably hate me for this, but I like the thought of showing the general public all the horses are in the same locker room, they’re all being looked after real thoroughly,” he said. “Just the transparency that our game probably lacks is key. You get a lot of commentary from people who don’t know the horses, who don’t know the horsemen, and don’t know how they’re cared for. This way you have everyone in an isolated vicinity and everyone who wants to come and kind of watch what’s going on there and make a judgment from what’s really happening and not guessing what’s going on in this guy’s locker room or that guy’s locker room. I think it’s a good thing. The obvious negative thing is a lot of horses do get distracted when they change stalls. It sounds silly, but it happens.”
Other Belmont hopefuls took to the track this past weekend as well. Paynter, trained by Bob Baffert (Bodemeister) and overseen in New York by assistant Jim Barnes, turned in seven furlongs—a real lung expander—in 1:25.
“Bob likes that kind of work, and I saw what I needed to see,” said Barnes “He’ll sit and wait, and when you ask him he responds. When [Rajiv Maragh] asked him to go, he accelerated by his company and up to Chad Brown’s horses.”
Trainer Chad Brown sends out Street Life, a colt described by his trainer as a “little lazy.”
“I was looking for five-eighths in 1:01 and that’s exactly what he did. He galloped out good and came back with plenty of energy,” said Brown. “We just wanted to maintain where he’s at. I really wasn’t looking to do anything more than that, so mission accomplished.”
Other horses slotted for Saturday are Optimizer, Atigun, Unstoppable U and Ravelo’s Boy.
Brendan O’Meara is the author of “Six Weeks in Saratoga.”
Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.
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Brendan O'Meara's 2012 Belmont Stakes Preview
This is it.
Come Saturday, June 9, around 6 p.m., I’ll Have Another will look to become just the 12th horse in the long history of North American Thoroughbred horse racing to win the Triple Crown if he can win the $1 million Belmont Stakes.