Getting America electrified about horse racing takes a lot these days. The possibility of the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years has that kind of juice.
The hum around Belmont Park is palpable -- where the talk among trainers, stable workers, jockeys and even fans is whether this is the one. That's to be expected at the sport's epicenter, where patrons are wearing "We Want Another" buttons in supporting Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another.
But New Yorkers are not the Lone Rangers in this. If you were born after 1978, you've never seen a Triple Crown winner, with Affirmed being the last of 11 who accomplished the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. So in offices and on streets and in bars, you're bound to hear the question, "Do you think he'll do it?"
Who doesn't want in on the action?
Paul McGinty, a horse owner and breeder in Maryland, says he's been invited to a Belmont party by friends "who have never attended a horse race but are excited about the possibility of seeing a Triple Crown winner."
Related Story: "Mario Gutierrez Poised to Be First Triple Crown Winner Since 1978"
On Saturday, the colt again will be in the hands of 25-year-old jockey Mario Gutierrez, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- the Derby at 1 miles on May 5 and the Preakness at 13/16 miles on May 19 -- on his first try. Now in their first trip around Belmont Park, they're looking to be the first duo since Steve Cauthen on Affirmed in 1978 to accomplish the sweep.
"Mario is such a confident rider, and he's so confident in I'll Have Another," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "They get along so well, so we're in good shape."
Even Affirmed's owner thinks this could be the year that a 12th horse joins the Triple Crown elite.
"There's something about this chestnut that reminds me a little tiny bit of Affirmed, the way he wants to win," Patrice Wolfson said. "And maybe it's just time. Maybe racing could use a star, and he could possibly be the star. It is thrilling to watch him run."
But wanting a Triple Crown winner is different than getting one. Affirmed was the 11th Triple Crown winner dating to 1919. Since Affirmed, 12 colts (including I'll Have Another) have entered the Belmont with a chance at history, but those first 11 failed.
Cauthen said I'll Have Another is a "very, very relaxed horse like Affirmed was." When he adds that "he really has a lot of try in him," it is said by a man who won a Triple Crown because he rode one of history's great triers. "He likes to run; he likes to battle," Cauthen says of I'll Have Another. "He's not afraid of a battle."
Despite all the similarities between Affirmed and I'll Have Another -- brilliant young jockeys, California connections, chestnut coloring, exact winning margins in the Derby and Preakness -- whether the Triple Crown drought will end really comes down to Belmont's 1-mile distance, the "Test of the Champion."
Talent and confidence don't always get you home here. The distance -- longest of the three races -- can be a fickle mistress. Horses have been run down in the stretch (Silver Charm in 1997), lost at the wire (Real Quiet in 1998), broken a leg (Charismatic in 1999) and stumbled out of the gate (War Emblem in 2002).
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