Let's say I'll Have Another wins the Belmont. Let's say horse racing can celebrate its first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Won't it still feel a little hollow without Bodemeister saddled up?
It's not going to be the same June 9 at Belmont Park without the two intense rivals meeting one more time in the most classic of horse racing settings. The Kentucky Derby was the storybook. The Preakness was the movie. But the Broadway production has been canceled despite the public clamoring for more. It's a blow to a sport desperate for mainstream attention. Does Kobe sit out a Game Seven against LeBron?
There are, as always, extenuating circumstances. Bodemeister didn't race as a 2-year-old and his season to this point has been a grind. He's raced six times, always on at least three weeks rest, before the Derby-Preakness squeeze. He'd be running three times in five weeks if he took on the Belmont and adding sizable distance to boot. A pacesetter, the race theoretically sets up poorly for him given the Belmont's endless and arduous stretch. But now we'll never know. It could well be that this Belmont would mimic that of 1973 were Bodemeister in the field. The handlers of Sham thought they had a chance against Secretariat that year after falling 2 1/2 lengths short in the Derby and the Preakness. And for the first half of the Belmont their faith was rewarded as the two raced side by side. Then that was that. Secretariat went on to win by 31 lengths in the most dominating Triple Crown triumph in horse-racing history. Sham finished last in the five-horse field, some 45 lengths in arrears.
To this point the I'll Have Another-Bodemeister rivalry has been more reminiscent of Affirmed-Alydar in 1978. I'll Have Another rallied in the stretch to beat Bodemeister by 1 1/2 lengths in the Derby. He rallied again to score by a neck in the Preakness. Those are the same margins of victory by which Affirmed beat Alydar leading up to the Belmont. And that, too, was a Triple Crown finale for the ages, with the two running together and apart from the field down the stretch. Alydar won by a nose.
It wouldn't have been the same race without Alydar, nor would Affirmed hold as majestic a place in horse racing history had he won in a rout with Alydar in a faraway stable. It takes two to make a horse race, and two great ones to make a memorable one. Beating Alydar a third time was the ultimate affirmation of Affirmed's superiority.
Not that I'll Have Another will lack potentially formidable challengers in the Belmont. The unfair reality of the Triple Crown saga is that horses that either skip or were ineligible for the Preakness make for dangerous foes. The last five horses to win both the Derby and the Preakness were done in by horses that missed the second leg. Looming large this year are Union Rags, the Derby favorite who placed seventh, and Dullahan, who placed third.
Bob Baffert, Bodemeister's trainer, said it was the plan all along to skip the Belmont no matter how the first two races turned out. Surely he's blowing smoke. No Derby-Preakness winner has skipped the Belmont since Bold Venture in 1936. His horse would be running if he had those two wins to his name.
Baffert has to look at the bigger picture. The Triple Crown is a grueling, taxing endeavor. Big Brown broke down in the 2008 Belmont after winning the Derby and the Preakness. Charismatic was retired after the 1999 Belmont when his Triple Crown hopes were dashed by injury during the race. Giving the Belmont a go isn't worth the risk given the situation.
It's too bad. Horse racing more so than other sports refuses to part with long-standing traditions, even when it's apparent those traditions have become a detriment. Why can't the Triple Crown be staged over two months rather than five weeks? Why is it that a horse that wins the first two legs must come back and run 1 1/2 miles three weeks later while some competitors benefit from a five-week break? Haven't the plights of Big Brown and Charismatic shown the risks inherent to such a demanding schedule?
Horse racing fans would like to see I'll Have Another and Bodemeister go at it in the Belmont. That we won't because of fatigue and risk of injury means it's time for the sport to rethink and modernize the Triple Crown setup.