Only 30 horses have made it to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown.
Eleven have succeeded.
This is whyI'll Have Another's quest to become the 12th at Belmont Park on June 9 will captivate a nation that long ago stopped paying close attention to the way thoroughbred horses run.
Every contender vying to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 is a Cinderella — a term not commonly used to describe long-shot sports teams back then — and his proving ground is a grueling slog that hearkens back to a different era. If he can somehow get through it, I'll Have Another will prove that he belongs with elite company.
"People have mentioned changing the Triple Crown," trainer Graham Motion, whose colt Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby but finished second at the Preakness, has said. "But if it's hard, that's what makes it significant. The history is what makes it."
There was no plan for the Triple Crown as we know it. The term was coined by a writer in the 1930s, well after Sir Barton won the three races in 1919, and the challenge grew organically because the best 3-year-olds happened to make their way from Louisville, Ky., to Baltimore to New York each spring.
Then, as now, there was little warning for when a horse good — and lucky — enough might be on the horizon. I'll Have Another, after all, was purchased for a paltry $35,000. A year ago, he was another promising horse in the stable of Doug O'Neill, a successful California-based trainer who had reached the Kentucky Derby only once, with two horses in 2007. They finished 13th and 14th.
Chances to sweep the American classics for 3-year-olds, run in a five-week period, come along at indeterminate intervals. Big Brown tried most recently, in 2008, but faltered without even making a run down the stretch in New York.
The jockey who rode Big Brown has already said I'll Have Another won't be able to win.
"A first-time jockey will be lost. I don't care how much you try to explain it," Desormeaux told The Daily early last week. "And a first-time horse will be lost, equally. If you think you can bring a horse here and introduce him to Belmont Park a few days before the Belmont Stakes, you have wronged yourself."
Team O'Neill — as O'Neill's large crew of assistants, valets, grooms and even a equine chiropractor is called — took I'll Have Another to New York less than 12 hours after the Preakness on May 19. He has run over the track there well, according to assistant Jack Sisterson, and galloped for a second time there Saturday.
"I think [the surface is] a little deeper, so the feel is different for him," Sisterson said. "But he seems to be liking it fine."
Motion considers the track at Belmont to be "more sandy" than most tracks.
"A track that long," he said, "makes it hard to keep water on it. By the time they get it all covered, it's started drying."
Belmont is 11/2 miles (both the track and the race). The Kentucky Derby is run at a length of 11/4 miles over a one-mile track; Preakness is 1 3/16 miles over a one-mile track.
Which is why Desormeaux thinks I'll Have Another won't be piloted correctly.
"When you're on a mile track as a jockey, it's time to start prepping forward when you hit the last turn," he said. "The horses learn it and think it's time to go because that's what they know and that's what they're trained [for]. As a jockey, when you get to Belmont Park, you have to mediate it, and that's very difficult."
Mario Gutierrez, the 25-year-old jockey who hadn't raced in a Triple Crown race before this year, has been offering his doubters a retort since he first stepped off I'll Have Another after winning in Kentucky.
"A lot of people thought I was going to melt down there," he said. "You know what? The horse is going to take me there. I believe in the horse."
Sisterson, for one, is not concerned about the jockey.
"The way Mario has handled everything to this point — so cool and calm — I think that will translate," he said. "That's what we'll need."
Team O'Neill has not yet had an in-depth conversation about race strategy, Sisterson said. O'Neill, who has raced horses at Belmont, is not due in town until Sunday. The trainer watched film of past races with his jockey before the Preakness, and they plan to do so at some point in New York. As in Baltimore, Gutierrez will also arrive a few days early to ride in races leading up to the Belmont.
The last four horses to win the Triple Crown — Citation in 1948, Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed a year later — have done so by going to the front immediately and controlling the pace of the Belmont. But I'll Have Another has usually made his move late. His lone wire-to-wire win came when he broke his maiden last July, leading for all of 51/2 furlongs.
A sloppy track could also be trouble for I'll Have Another; his lone finish outside the top two came on a soaked track at Saratoga in the Hopeful Stakes last September.
For all the things that might prevent him from winning, I'll Have Another has many believers.
"There's no question in my mind he can win it," said Motion, who raced Went the Day Well in the Derby (fourth) and Preakness (11th). "He's a quality horse, and he's shown it. But he's got to be right on the day. And he's got to have good luck. There are a few rested horses who seem to be on the cusp of big runs. He'll have to be at his best. But what we've seen so far is not a fluke."
One of I'll Have Another's most likely rivals, Dullahan, will ship into town Sunday after a fast one-mile work at Churchill Downs on Saturday.
"It's been a long time [since I had a horse work one mile]," trainer Dale Romans said. "He didn't seem tired afterwards, and he galloped out nicely."
O'Neill is counting on his horse's calm demeanor — and a skimpy racing schedule early this year — to push through the blockade that has stopped the 11 horses who came to New York seeking to end what is now a 34-year Triple Crown drought.
"He's got the mind," O'Neill said of his colt before leaving Baltimore. "You've seen the way he's handled the attention in Kentucky and here in Baltimore. He's got a great confidence about him, and he's got the stride of a horse that a mile and a half won't be a problem. He's got the pedigree; so much stamina on the female side.
"And he's lightly raced. After winning the Bob Lewis, it enabled us to give him plenty of time before his next start. He's still a fresh, happy, thriving horse that just seems to be getting better and better."
Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Big Brown, knows how difficult winning the Belmont can be. He guaranteed a win for his horse, who would be pulled up before the finish line.
"Of course this horse can do it," he said of I'll Have Another. "He's already proven he's the best. He's good. But that's got to hold. His health, his luck, his happiness. It has to hold."
twitter.com/chriskormanCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times