So, I am taking I'll Have Another's Triple Crown bid very seriously. Some horses just have a will to win that can't be quantified. I'll Have Another, like Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, may be one of those horses. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is 4-for-4 this year. When he had to give absolutely everything to win in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness, he gave it.
Bodemeister was absolutely running away from the field in the Pimlico stretch yet I'll Have Another ran him down anyway. I have watched thousands of races. See enough and certain patterns develop. You know how it's going to end because of what is taking place during the race. A horse in Bodemeister's situation wins that race 95 percent of the time, but not that time.
My memory is that, since 1987, I have picked the horse going for the Triple Crown six times and against him three times. I did not like Alysheba. I picked Easy Goer over Sunday Silence. I picked against Big Brown. Better horses than I'll Have Another (Spectacular Bid, Smarty Jones) have gotten to this stage and lost. So, if the Belmont Stakes has taught us anything, it has taught us that no matter how good a horse looks on paper, nothing is decided there.
Otherwise, how do you account for Derby also-rans turned Belmont winners Commendable, beaten by 26 lengths in Kentucky, Birdstone beaten by 15 lengths, Jazil, beaten nearly 10 lengths and Summer Bird beaten by 13 lengths. What they all had in common was that they passed the Preakness and waited for the Belmont, just like Dullahan and Union Rags.
Who liked Lemon Drop Kid, Sarava, Da?'Tara, Drosselmeyer or Ruler On Ice?
If all of those horses can win the Belmont since 1999, it is hard to feel confident of anything.
The mile-and-a-half distance is an outlier in today's game. No matter how a horse looks in training, that third race in 5 weeks is a silent killer. I'll Have Another's training went perfectly at Pimlico and the early returns from Belmont Park were more of the same. The last few days, however, the horse has not been quite as sharp in his gallops. And that is cause for concern.
"I can't believe I'm in this spot," I'll Have Another's trainer Doug O'Neill said. "I'm proof that if you have a talented horse and if you have a great team and a great staff, miracles can happen. It's all about the horse."
I'll Have Another is the most accomplished horse in the race. He is the fastest horse in the race. He is the most likely winner. He is my pick. But I have reservations, not about the horse, but about the circumstance and the likely odds. Who needs 4-5 on a horse running an oddball distance?
And there is also the opposition. Union Rags simply could not have done what he did as a 2-year-old without transcendent talent. It has now shown in 2012, but you watch him train and listen to the people around him, you can't give up on it until the horse gets a clear run and does not deliver.
"He's in good form," assistant trainer/exercise rider Peter Brette said. "I think we just need a change in luck. Hopefully, we're going to get it now."
Basically, Union Rags needs sky and dirt in front of him, not traffic. Trainer Michael Matz is employing jockey John Velazquez because he knows Belmont Park so well and has faith in him to do the right thing by the horse.
"I think wherever he's comfortable, I'm not going to make it complicated," Matz said. "Obviously, he didn't get where he was by being a muck sack. He's a top rider. For me to tell him how to ride the race, it's going to be plain and simple … I think this horse should be right off the pace somewhere."
The pace won't be that fast. Paynter should be near the top. Trainer Ken McPeek promised that lightly raced Unstoppable U will be in front. I'll Have Another figures to be in the vicinity of the lead. There is no reason Union Rags should not be within a few lengths of the lead when they hit the backstretch.
Dullahan is the biggest mystery to me. I generally do not like these late closers in the Derby, as they look better than they really are because the leaders are slowing down so dramatically.
Still, I really respect the colt's trainer Dale Romans. He has become a major factor on the Triple Crown trail the last few years because it is clear he has studied it and made coherent plans.
Romans actually wanted to run Dullahan back in the Preakness after he finished third in the Derby. Owner Jerry Crawford talked him out of it.
"In hindsight, I think Jerry made the right decision," Romans said. "This gives us the best chance to win a classic."
I agree. This horse is dangerous because his trainer is dangerous, unafraid and unapologetic.
Would Romans feel badly if Dullahan stops I'll Have Another from winning the Triple Crown?
"Absolutely not," he said. "I think we owe it to the past Triple Crown winners to make him earn it. If he's a super horse, like Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Secretariat, and some of our past Triple Crown winners, then he'll win it. If not, we'll be able to beat him."
And if he does …
"I'd like to have 120,000 people booing me on the way out," Romans said.
Probably won't be 120,000 at Belmont Park like there were for Smarty Jones in 2004. Nor will be the incredible 22 million that watched it on television that day. But 100,000 and a huge TV audience are assured.
This is big. And it is barely 24 hours away now. n
Contact Dick Jerardi at firstname.lastname@example.org