If I'll Have Another had been able to chase history around the track, a crowd of more than 100,000 was expected to act as witness. Without that possibility, the attendance will still be better than usual because of a big advance sale (55,779 were on hand to see Ruler On Ice win last year), but horse racing will have again missed an opportunity to connect with the casual fan.
The crowd will be big enough and the feel of race day strong enough that I'll Have Another will prick his ears forward during the post parade and be very sure he is about to run. Not this time, though, and according to owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill, not ever.
The winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes is too valuable as a potential sire to risk on the racetrack any longer. I'll Have Another won't be allowed to do much more than walk, but at least he'll walk away from a game, and a difficult Triple Crown schedule, that claimed Barbaro and Eight Belles and crippled many others.
"Just a freakish thing," O'Neill said. "When you have a human or equine athlete who gives 110 percent every time they step on the court or the track, you're [susceptible] to injury. I've been hoping and praying he would stay injury-free, and . . . it didn't happen."
And so, once again, the Triple Crown didn't happen, either. As the next crop of 3-year-olds comes along in 2013, it will have been 35 years since the last one.
When Affirmed eased in front of Alydar in the stretch run of the Belmont and stayed there to the finish line to win by a head, the horse racing world was excited by the story of the duels that produced the 11th Triple Crown winner, but no one thought anything particularly momentous had taken place.
It was 1978. Gas was 63 cents a gallon, the Shah of Iran thought he had good job security, and all the Beatles were alive. In another four years, the first interwoven network of computer users would go online, and, a year after that, Motorola would come out with something called a 1G cellular network.
That was a long time ago, but horses still look the same and run just about as fast, and every now and then a superb 3-year-old comes along with a real shot to become the next Triple Crown champion. Since 1978, though, the wait has continued.
At the time, Affirmed was the third Triple Crown champion in the space of six years, following Secretariat and Seattle Slew. He was a great horse, just that much better in those three races than the gallant Alydar, but Triple Crown champions were being crowned with such regularity, it would have been hard to imagine a gap of 30-plus years to the next one.
Between then and now, 15 different teams have won the Super Bowl, 20 teams have won the World Series, and there have been six U.S. presidents. Affirmed died in 2001 at the age of 26 following a long, modestly distinguished breeding career. Alydar was euthanized at the age of 15 after suffering a broken leg in his stall during Calumet Farms' bankruptcy troubles. It is widely accepted that Alydar, a great sire of champions like Easy Goer and Alysheba, was the victim of foul play.
So, yes, a lot has happened during the longest drought in Triple Crown history. The most extensive previous stretch between champions was 25 years between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973.
I'll Have Another had a chance to end the drought until the swelling in his left foreleg took him out of the Belmont and retired him from racing. Now he has joined the list of 11 other horses since Affirmed who won the Derby and Preakness but couldn't complete the Triple Crown. Unlike I'll Have Another, though, the others were given a chance.
Spectacular Bid couldn't do it, nor Alysheba, Silver Charm, War Emblem, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and the others. All good horses, all given a great chance of winning the Triple Crown, and all relegated to the list of near-misses.
I'll Have Another had nearly perfect trips in the Derby and Preakness under young jockey Gutierrez. Because of that, it's difficult to know if the colt was truly great or truly fortunate. Now, we'll never know. The public was late to warm to I'll Have Another - partially because this was a deep and talented group of 3-year-olds - and the Belmont would have represented the first time in his career he went off as the betting favorite.
Without him, Dullahan, the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes and the third-place finisher in the Derby, becomes the betting favorite. He will be closely followed at the windows by Union Rags, the locally owned and trained horse whose racing luck has been as bad as I'll Have Another's was good.
Both Dullahan and Union Rags are the sort of powerful stalking horses whose style fits well with the 11/2-mile Belmont, which usually rewards patience and stamina. The wild card in the field is a speed horse named Paynter, trained by Bob Baffert.
"I think Paynter is the key to the race, and how fast he will want to go early," said Dale Romans, trainer of Dullahan. "He's the type of horse that if you let him go too long, he might just keep on going. He's a talented horse, and he's trained by a Hall of Famer who knows how to win every kind of race. He's the one that worries me a little bit."
There are always worries at the Belmont, the longest race thoroughbreds are ever asked to negotiate in this country. It is a very long way from the start to the finish line, and the horses all know it by the end.
It's also a long way from 1978 to 2012. I'll Have Another could have stopped the clock on the Triple Crown wait, but now the wait continues. The horse-racing world likes great champions and will welcome the next one whenever that lucky colt comes along. And by then, everyone will realize it doesn't necessarily happen very often.
Contact columnist Bob Ford at email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns