I had known he was better than Alydar when I saw them race the previous fall at Laurel. The public didn’t know it yet. They soon learned.
I celebrated at a restaurant downtown, at what I think was the top of the Galt House, a local landmark along the Ohio River. I had more than enough money to take a cab back to the airport. There are no rooms in Louisville on Derby night, even if you are flush.
Pimlico was just a few miles from where I lived in 1978. I was there every day of the meet, including Preakness Day. In that race, Alydar made a big charge at Affirmed, but they could have run 10 miles and he was never getting by. I really thought about going to Belmont Park to see Affirmed complete the Triple Crown that I knew he would win. But what was the point? The Triple Crown was won all the time. This would be the third time in 6 years. Why would I need to see something now that I knew I could see just about any year?
Nice call. Really, nice call.
There have been just 11 Triple Crown winners since 1919. Since 1978, 11 have tried and failed after winning the Derby and the Preakness. I’ll Have Another was going to be on one of those lists. Now, after being scratched (and then retired) Friday due to a tendon injury, he is on a separate list — of horses that won the first two legs and did not run in the third.
I only saw the Preakness the years Spectacular Bid (1979) and Pleasant Colony (1981) won the first two legs. And lost the Belmont.
My first Triple Crown for the Daily News was 1987. I was there when Alysheba won the Derby and the Preakness. And I was there when he lost the Belmont Stakes.
Nine times now I have seen one horse win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. And lose the Belmont Stakes. I have gone days before the race, the day of the race. I have sat in the press box, stood in different parts of the press box. Watched it live. Watched it on television. The result has always been the same.
I wasn’t sure where I was going to watch this race. I do know what I won’t be seeing. After this injury, so many near-misses and the 21st-century reality of this sport, I am starting to wonder if I will ever be able to write about a Triple Crown winner — or even see one.
In 1987, I sat in a box with Jimmy Croll, Bet Twice’s trainer. When it was clear that Bet Twice was going to win easily and Alysheba was not going to win the Triple Crown, Croll stopped looking at his horse and moved his binoculars to Alysheba. If Alysheba finished fourth, Bet Twice would get a $1 million bonus for best overall TC finishes. Alysheba finished fourth.
In 2004, I was in a box with Bob Levy, Bet Twice’s owner, just a few rows in front of the Servis family, the Chapman family and Gov. Rendell. While everybody was shrieking as Smarty Jones entered the stretch with a 4-length lead, I had a sense of foreboding, as the stride I knew so well from all those mornings at Philadelphia Park began to fall apart.
My good friend, Randy Moss, the terrific horse-racing analyst for NBC Sports (not the surly wide receiver), covered his first Triple Crown in 1980, 2 years after Affirmed won his. This is his 33rd. So maybe it’s his fault. Or mine. Or it’s just the Triple Crown.
The fragile nature of the modern thoroughbred hit home again with Friday’s news. The hard preparation and hard races to get to the Kentucky Derby and the three Triple Crown races in 5 weeks really take a toll on these horses. Neither Smarty Jones nor Afleet Alex was able to run after the Belmont. Barbaro, sadly, was hurt in the first few hundred yards of the Preakness. Still, the Belmont memories, with a Triple Crown on the line, linger.
I will always remember Bob Levy’s good friend Sonny Werblin snapping his finger in 1987 after Bet Twice won the Belmont, and coming up with a room for a huge party that night in the 21 Club. I will never forget jockey Gary Stevens telling me — after Silver Charm ran his guts out in the 1997 Belmont only to get beaten in the final yards — that he never had a horse run that well and lose. I still see John Servis stopping to touch the Secretariat statue on his way out of the paddock in 2004 and going up to Nick Zito to congratulate him in the winner’s circle. I will never forget making the long walk to go back with Servis to see Smarty Jones at the barn.
Belmont Stakes Day with a Triple Crown on the line is a day like no other. I was that kid who knew everything back in 1978. Now, I know better.
I also know this: No matter how unlikely it has become, I will keep going back until a horse wins the Triple Crown.