The Triple Crown is one of the most difficult feats to achieve in all of sports. A horse has but one chance during its 3-year-old season to win three consecutive races, at three different tracks, at three different distances to claim the elusive Crown. Only 11 horses have claimed it in history.
Next Saturday, I'll Have Another will try and exorcise the ghosts of Belmont past and win the first Triple Crown since 1978.
There have been 11 horses that have attempted to claim the Triple Crown after winning the first two legs since Affirmed's victory in the 1978 Belmont Stakes with out success.
Let's take a look at the last seven horses that were upended in the Test of a Champion, the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont Stakes:
*Silver Charm (1997). The Bob Baffert-trained Silver Charm took the lead at the top of the stretch after tracking the leaders in second or third most of the race. In the final furlong, Chris McCarron guided Touch Gold to a final charge denying Silver Charm and Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens the Crown.
*Real Quiet (1998). Probably the most devastating Triple Crown loss in the past 15 years was that of Real Quiet. Once again, Baffert was on the brink of infamy with the talented colt that had defeated Victory Gallop in both the Derby and the Preakness, finishing 1-2 in both. Jockey Kent Desormeaux and Real Quiet took over at the top of the stretch and continued to open up a four length lead as he cruised by the eighth pole, but a hard closing Victory Gallop kept on coming and ended in a photo finish at the wire. Ironically, jockey Gary Stevens denied in 1997 on Silver Charm the rider defeating him in the trainer's second consecutive crack at the Crown in 1998.
*Charismatic (1999). If 1998 was the epitome of agony of defeat for Real Quiet, the brutal ending to the 1999 Belmont was just as difficult for trainer D. Wayne Lukas and late jockey Chris Antley. An improbable winner in the Derby (31-1) and the Preakness (8-1), Charismatic went off as the favorite in the Belmont. With five horses across the track as they raced down Belmont's long stretch, Charismatic was a beaten horse fading to third as Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse surged past him. Just beyond the finish line Antley, sensing something was amiss in the final furlong, jumped off Charismatic and held up his left front leg. The leg was indeed broken in two places. War Emblem (2002).War Emblem had been impressive winning the Derby by four lengths and holding off long shot Magic Weisner in the Preakness. The Belmont however was over in the first few steps. War Emblem stumbled badly at the start nearly going down, bumped Magic Weisner and was rank through most of the early going in the race. While he recovered and even took a brief lead with a half mile to go, the bad start and rough early going proved to be too much for the Baffert-trained colt. He finished eighth, as Sarava at 70-1 upset the field at the biggest Belmont price ever ($142.50).
*Funny Cide (2003). One of the biggest fan favorites and feel-good stories of the last ten years is Sackatoga Stables' run to the Triple Crown with Funny Cide. Owned by a group of buddies from Sacketts Harbor, N.Y., the gelding defeated his arch rival Empire Maker in the Derby and romped to win by over 9 lengths in the Preakness. Empire Maker skipped the Preakness to take aim at his nemesis in the Belmont. On a sloppy track in front of almost 102,000 rain-soaked fans, Funny Cide went to the lead early..
Empire Maker stalked him all the way around the track and approached him at the 3/8 ths pole, before taking the lead at the top of the stretch and holding off Ten Most Wanted in the deep stretch. Funny Cide could finish no better than third. Irony struck again as jockey Jose Santos was denied the Triple Crown after dealing Charismatic his defeat on Lemon Drop Kid in 1999.
*Smarty Jones (2004). In one of the most exciting races in this century, before a still-record crowd of 120,139 at Belmont Park, Smarty Jones took his crack at racing history. The Philadelphia-based horse was pressed in the early going by both Rock Hard Ten and Eddington making him maintain a fairly quick pace. In the end it was his undoing. He hit the top of the stretch with a four length lead, but a closing Birdstone would continue to nip away at the lead through the long Belmont Park stretch run and catch him in the final 50 yards.
*Big Brown (2008). On a memorable scorcher of a day in New York, with the thermometer approaching 95 degrees, Big Brown would go off as the shortest favorite (0.30-1) in Belmont Stakes history. After winning in impressive fashion from the 20 hole in the Derby and by more than 5 lengths in the Preakness, he seemed to be a cinch for the Triple Crown. After his crushing loss on Real Quiet in 1997, Desormeaux was back with his second chance at Triple Crown glory on Big Brown. Desormeaux got him to the outside where he was tracking the leader, Da'Tara on the outside in third through most of the backstretch. When approaching the 3/8 ths marker, Desormeaux asked Big Brown for more, but the big colt had nothing the give and was eased at the top of the stretch.Two weeks after the Belmont, a picture revealed a dislodged shoe on Big Brown's right hind leg that could havecausedhis poor performance.
Between the vaunted distance of the Belmont's mile and a half track, jockeys erring by moving too soon to plain old bad luck, the Belmont Stakes has proven to be the most difficult leg to claim in the past 33 years. Does I'll Have Another have what it takes from a stamina standpoint? Will his young jockey make the same mistakes veteran jocks have made with the pressure of the Triple Crown on the line? The answers will be before us late next Saturday afternoon. One thing I can tell you about this horse is that he has the heart of a champion and he's about to face the Test of a Champion.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He posts every Friday at the Sports, Ink blog at www.buffalonews.com and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).