I'll Have Another will try to become thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown champion since 1978 by winning the Belmont Stakes on June 9. The past shows it requires more than greatness. The Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes champion needs luck, too.
Sunday Silence's 1989 bid came after he beat Easy Goer in a Preakness Stakes that was dubbed the greatest race of the decade. But Sunday Silence's misfortune was Easy Goer's 10-0 mark at Belmont Park, his home track. Sunday Silence later beat Easy Goer again in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but the New York colt denied his California counterpart with a rare home-track advantage.
Then there was the bad luck of losing in a photo finish. Victory Gallop edged Real Quiet by a dirty nose on the final jump of the 1998 Belmont. Victory Gallop was second in the Preakness, so the Triple Crown denial was no shock considering Victory Gallop was the 5-1 second choice. Still, it was a heartbreaking loss for a declining sport desperate for a champion.
But the king of bad luck was Spectacular Bid. He entered the Belmont as a heavy 3-10 favorite after resounding Derby and Preakness victories. A leg bandage came loose that morning though, and a safety pin fell to the stall floor. Spectacular Bid stepped on it, and the pin pierced the middle of his hoof. A couple of days might have made the difference, but the race was hours away.
Maryland trainer Bud Delp wanted to scratch the colt, but the pressure of the Triple Crown made him enter Spectacular Bid. He finished third, partly because of a bad ride by jockey Ronnie Franklin, whose career soon unraveled. Delp felt that loss until his 2006 death. A Triple Crown victory would have allowed Spectacular Bid to join Secretariat and Citation among the greatest horses ever.
Sometimes there's a rival that runs the race of his life. Smarty Jones looked like a lock in 2004. The undefeated colt was compared to 1977 champion Seattle Slew. Out of nowhere leaving the final turn, 36-1 long shot Birdstone rallied for a one-length win. Birdstone was trained by Nick Zito, whose 38-1 long shot Da' Tara later ended Big Brown's 2008 Triple Crown bid.
I'll Have Another has never been favored in seven career races, but he surely will be the choice at the Belmont. Dullahan and Union Rags are serious contenders in a probable field of eight or so, though. Dullahan was third in the Derby and Union Rags seventh after a horrible ride. Both skipped the Preakness to rest for the Belmont.
Horse racing finds a way to reject those unworthy of immortality, with Charismatic, War Emblem and Funny Cide among the 21 double crown failures. If Belmont is truly the test of a champion, then I'll Have Another must validate his worthiness with one more notable effort.