Saturday, June 9, 2012

Another Disappointment

Everyone — even the most privileged who walk the earth — must have felt it at some time.

That helpless, vulnerable, rug–pulled–out–from–under–your–feet feeling.

That's how I felt when I heard the news that I'll Have Another, the winner of this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, had been scratched from today's Belmont Stakes.

This is the longest drought between Triple Crown winners in thoroughbred racing history. Those of us who enjoy watching horse racing have grown wary of Triple Crowns. Almost no one ever speaks about the possibility after the Kentucky Derby, preferring to wait and see if its winner is more than a flash in the pan — and there have been nearly two dozen of those since 1978.

But there have also been a dozen horses — including I'll Have Another — that won the first two races and came to the Belmont in search of that elusive Triple Crown. The others came up short, either spectacularly so or, more rarely, by narrow margins.

There is a reason why the Belmont is called the test of champions. The first two races are shorter. They were designed with speed horses in mind. But the Belmont is longer. It favors endurance.

It is a rare horse — a Secretariat — that combines both speed and endurance.

I've enjoyed watching the horses run since I was a child. Nearly 40 years ago, I saw my first Triple Crown winner (on TV, not in person), then two more came along in what was (and still is) rapid–fire succession for thoroughbred racing.

And we have had no more since.

We've had plenty of near misses since Affirmed won the 1978 Triple Crown.

Perhaps the most colon–tighteningly, tantalizingly, exasperatingly close near miss of them all was the 2004 Belmont Stakes, in which Birdstone overtook Smarty Jones and denied him the Triple Crown by a single length. Smarty Jones seemed to possess both speed and endurance. It was a real disappointment when he failed.

Most of the time, it is a speed horse that comes to the Belmont and loses — big. And that, in itself, answers the question that follows the exceptional horses that win the first two to the third jewel of the Triple Crown: Is this horse more than a speed horse?

Since 1978, all the two–time winners have had their opportunity to answer that question on the track.

But it will never be answered in the case of I'll Have Another. Instead of making a bid for horse racing immortality this afternoon, he was retired.

There was never going to be a shortage of important sports events today. Earlier, Maria Sharapova won the women's final at the French Open. She is now one of a handful of tennis players who won a career Grand Slam — at least one singles title in each of the four Grand Slam events.

Tonight, the Los Angeles Kings will try to win their first–ever Stanley Cup. And the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics will play for the right to face Oklahoma City in the NBA finals.

But all that would have been overshadowed by far if I'll Have Another had won the Belmont.

Somebody wins the NBA championship, the Stanley Cup and the women's final of the French Open every year.

But it's been 34 years since a horse won the Triple Crown.

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