Many racing (and non-racing) fans would be thrilled to witness the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. They clamor for this unlikely accomplishment to boost racing’s national profile. I’m not one of those people. For the record, I’m rooting against a win by I’ll Have Another on Saturday. I believe the elusiveness of such a feat is the allure. Once obtained, especially by a previously unheralded runner with somewhat questionable connections, it loses its grandiosity. When it does happen, I’m hoping the winning horse mirrors the great Secretariat, who broke a 25 year Triple Crown drought and turned into, most believe, the greatest race horse of all-time.
Let’s take a look at the six runners to have this shot since 1997:
1997 – Silver Charm
Silver Charm was very similar to I’ll Have Another. Both were stationed in Southern California and both were game in the Santa Anita Derby. Silver Charm lost by a nose to Free House and I’ll Have Another won by a nose to Creative Cause. Silver Charm won hard-fought victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing a late battle to Touch Gold in the Belmont. There was nothing tinny about the ’97 Triple Crown talent. Silver Charm went on to win 7 more graded races, including the Dubai World Cup, and retired with almost $7,000,000 in earnings. Touch Gold won the Haskell in his next start and has turned into a top-notch sire.
1998 – Real Quiet
Real Quiet was the first of many to come head-scratchers aiming for a Triple Crown. Bob Baffert (who trained Silver Charm to a narrow miss in 1997) was right back in 1998 with this colt. Real Quiet required 7 starts to break his maiden, had been drilled in an allowance race at Santa Fe, had lost the Golden Gate Derby by 23 lengths and was winless in his three-year old season before taking down the Derby and Preakness. A win by Real Quiet would have been a travesty for racing purists. Real Quiet, ironically, came closer than any non-Triple Crown winner has ever come. He lost a nose in the Belmont after leading by 4 lengths in the stretch. He actually won the Grade 1 Pimlico Special and Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup to finish his career which legitimizes him to some degree.
1999 – Charismatic
For the second year in a row, a pedestrian looking runner made it to New York with a chance of taking down the Triple Crown. This horse had performed poorly enough to be entered (and lose) a claiming race just five starts before winning the Derby. He had only a maiden claiming win to his name prior to winning the Derby and was on a 7 race losing streak. It is likely that both Real Quiet and Charasmatic were products of the era… Charasmatic was injured in the Belmont finishing third and never ran another race.
2002 – War Emblem
Baffert again came to NY with an unlikely candidate for the Triple Crown. He had War Emblem in his stable only days prior to this colt starting in the Derby. The runner was trained by Frank Springer for the first 7 races of his career, including a 6 ½ length romp in the Illinois Derby a month before the Kentucky Derby. However, War Emblem, like the two most recent colts that lined up with a shot in the Belmont, had a less than stellar resume heading to the Derby. He was soundly drilled in the Manilla, Lecomte and Risen Star. The Illinois Derby win marked his first stakes victory and was the reason bettors allowed this runner to get away at 21-1 in Kentucky. He stumbled at the break in the Belmont and was not heard from throughout. Sarava scored a 70-1 upset and keyed boxcar payoffs in the exotics. War Emblem was soundly drilled in three of his last four starts including a 20 length defeat in the BC Classic of 2002.
2003 – Funny Cide
Funny Cide was a great story. A modestly bred gelding owned by a bunch of guys who had been friends since childhood. They didn’t invest a lot but experienced a ride of a lifetime. But had Funny Cide won the Belmont, could you honestly place his name alongside War Admiral, Citation, Seattle Slew and Secretariat? Those names are the cornerstone of racing lore. Funny Cide is a good barometer to I’ll Have Another. Both Funny Cide and I’ll Have Another were game in grinding away a Kentucky Derby win. Both made exhilarating moves in the Preakness to win (Funny Cide by nearly 10 lengths and I’ll Have Another to catch a clear leader Bodemeister, who was a mile in front of the rest of the field). After a 10 length win in the Preakness, the public made Funny Cide even money to win the Belmont. He was passed early and finished a weak 3rd in the field of 6 behind Empire Maker. While Funny Cide won the Jockey’s Gold Cup of 2004, he would finish his career nibbling on state bred type stakes races in NY. This would have hardly been the type of company we would expect a Triple Crown winner to keep. The “racing gods” stepped in yet again and reserved the Triple Crown for a more meaningful type.
2004 – Smarty Jones
Smarty Jones was certainly deserving of the Triple Crown. He had won all 8 of his races prior to the Belmont. He had won by a combined 50 lengths in 8 starts and had come to the Belmont off of 12 length score in the Preakness. As Funny Cide the year before him, it appeared the ease of which he scored in the Preakness made him a cinch in the Belmont. He went off at 1-9 and was run down by the Nick Zito trained Birdstone. The atmosphere was so sullen after Birdstone won (at 35-1) that the owners of Birdstone actually apologized in the post-race interview. Smarty Jones never raced again so there is no way to know if he would have been as great as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. He had bruises on all four shins… as was the excuse for retirement. It was more plausible the allure of breeding money took Smarty Jones from the racetrack. This would have likely been the same plan had he won the Belmont and we would have never been treated to a deserving encore.
2008 – Big Brown
Finally, there was Big Brown. I doubt there ever was an animal more distained for his connections than Big Brown. He was owned by a syndicate of smarmy investors and trained by possibly the most despised person in the industry, Rick Dutrow. Dutrow had numerous violations and a hard to like personality. He boasted to NBC about giving his horses steroids prior to the Preakness. He crushed in the marred running of the 2008 Derby. His win and subsequent defeat of runner-up Eight Belles (who died on the track following the race) prompted congressional investigations into horse racing at the highest levels. Big Brown destroyed the Preakness field and was a can’t miss in the Belmont. At 1-9, he was so far back on the backstretch that jockey Kent Desormeaux cried uncle and gave up. It was the only loss for Big Brown as he would win the Haskell and Monmouth Stakes to close out his career with 7 wins in 8 starts.
Interestingly, the last three colts mentioned came into the Belmont off of sensational, jaw dropping scores in the Preakness. I’ll Have Another never looked a loser when he made his move in the Preakness, either. Many won’t forget and will push his post time odds into the 6-5 range. Can he win? Of course. But history says we’ve seen this movie before. There will be some low hanging fruit on the tote board tree. Runners like Union Rags and Dullahan will see inflated odds due to the “Triple Crown phenomena”. Both will finish in front of I’ll Have Another. The favorite will make a bit of an early move, take the lead in early stretch and then be run down like he’s tied to the fence in the final furlong.
There will be groans from the crowd… but not from everyone.
This blog was written by Canterbury Regular “Track Phantom”. Track Phantom has been a dedicated handicapper, writer, blogger, bettor and fan of racing since 1986 and has analyzed virtually every Canterbury race since. He particularly focuses on his home track of Canterbury Park and offers free daily analysis of Canterbury’s live racing at www.trackphantom.com.