Saturday, May 19, 2012

On the Brink of a Triple Crown

About midway through the week, I began searching for articles about today's Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

I wanted to find out if veteran handicappers thought Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another had a chance of winning today's race — and, consequently, continuing to contend for the Triple Crown.

I found few articles that spoke of him the way articles in the past have lauded the Kentucky Derby winner.

That's understandable. The last time the Kentucky Derby winner went on to win the Preakness was in 2008. In fact, only 10 times since Affirmed won the 1978 Triple Crown had the Kentucky Derby winner gone on to win the Preakness. That is less than one–third of the time.

With that kind of history, horse racing writers had every reason to be hesitant to build up I'll Have Another until today's race was in the books.

Well, it is in the books now, and my guess is that we'll be hearing a lot about I'll Have Another in the next three weeks.

Because he did win today's Preakness — and it was perhaps the most exciting Preakness I have ever seen.

Once again, Bodemeister, the horse that led the Kentucky Derby most of the way, was the leader in the Preakness — again, most of the way.

And, once again, I'll Have Another overtook him at the end — and won the Preakness by a head. Literally.

Last year, three different horses won the Triple Crown races. And, at the time, I wrote that it was not so much a sign of a mediocre thoroughbred field as it was an indication that horse racing was enjoying a period of parity in which every race was competitive.

Those were exciting races, to be sure.

But anyone who is a fan of horse racing is likely to appreciate the fact that, for only the 11th time in the last 34 years, we can anticipate the possibility of a Triple Crown winner when the Belmont is run three weeks from today.

Even casual fans will know — if they don't already — that this year's Belmont will be something rare and extraordinary. It will be an event — and not, as it has been for the last three years, the anticlimactic conclusion to the Triple Crown season.

As I have mentioned here before, I teach journalism and writing to students in the Dallas County community college system, and nearly all the students with whom I have worked in the last couple of years were born at least a decade after the last Triple Crown winner.

If I'll Have Another does win the Belmont — and, with it, the Triple Crown — it will be the kind of thing that comes along once in a generation — if that.

I know many people who were born in 1979 or after — and, as a consequence, have not seen a Triple Crown winner. Some of them have died — and some may die before the Belmont is run — and will, as a consequence, never see a Triple Crown winner.

There is, of course, that one last hurdle for I'll Have Another, and it has wrecked many potential Triple Crown winners. At 1½ miles, it is the longest of the three, a quarter of a mile longer than the Kentucky Derby and more than one–third of a mile longer than the race that was run today.

After two races that emphasized speed, the Belmont prizes endurance. That is why it is known as the "Test of Champions." And it is quite a test.

We will find out if I'll Have Another is a super horse, one that is fast but can also handle long distances. Most horses are either one or the other. Triple Crown winners tend to be exceptions to the rule.

It should make for an entertaining afternoon three weeks from today.

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