It's not enough that late on the afternoon of Saturday, June 9, at Belmont Park in New York, a powerful and determined chestnut colt named I'll Have Another can become the first thoroughbred in 34 years to win racing's Triple Crown, thus achieving one of the rarest feats in any sport. Apparently he must also save the enterprise of horse racing itself, restoring it to a place in American culture that it hasn't occupied in many decades and rescuing it from a morass of ethical and financial problems that threaten it with extinction. It's a lot to ask of a creature, however majestic, who spends 23 hours a day in a stall and eats his food from a plastic tub, but that's the working story line.
This happens every spring, and with increasing fervor, when a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, thereby reaching the cusp of history. I'll Have Another is the 12th such horse since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978 (the third of the '70s, after Secretariat in '73 and Seattle Slew in '77). And on each occasion, as May turns into June and the Belmont draws closer, the whispers grow louder and more urgent: Racing needs a Triple Crown winner. As if in the weeks after I'll Have Another flashes beneath the finish wire at Belmont, fans will be climbing on steam trains to follow the Big Horse on a barnstorming tour across America and television networks will be clearing aside NFL programming to broadcast stakes races. It's wildly wishful thinking that ignores the grim realities of the present and, worse, cheapens the significance and wonder of what I'll Have Another might accomplish by insisting that it become something more.
First, those grim realities. I'll Have Another's trainer, Californian Doug O'Neill, 44, has in the last 14 years been fined or suspended 15 times for drug- and medication-related violations. Last Thursday he received a 45-day suspension from the California Horse Racing Board for exceeding the allowable limit of total carbon dioxide (TCO2, which can enhance performance by reducing lactic acid and fatigue) in his horses. He was also fined twice previously for simillar violations in California and fined and suspended for a TCO2 violation in Illinois in 2010. Since winning the Derby on May 5, O'Neill has been the two-sided face of racing, a jovial man with a long rap sheet, alternately praising his brilliant horse and apologizing for past errors. There is no evidence or implication that I'll Have Another has received any illegal benefit, yet the juxtaposition of fast horse and convicted trainer is powerfully discomforting (and disturbingly appropriate).
Meanwhile, as stately Belmont Park prepares to welcome the sports world, the organization that operates racing at the giant track has embarrassingly been placed under a form of receivership. Shortly after the Preakness, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York seized control of racing in the state from the troubled New York Racing Association. NYRA had recently fired its chief executive and general counsel after it learned from state investigators that the two may have been complicit in overcharging bettors on commissions. On a national scale, racing is wrestling with broad issues of medication and horse breakdowns.
Against this backdrop I'll Have Another will attempt to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner in history and only the fourth in 64 years. (A quarter century passed between Citation's Triple Crown in '48 and Secretariat's.) A crowd of more than 100,000 is likely, and television ratings on NBC, which have been strong for the Derby and Preakness, will probably be very good because America loves its big events (and then moves on). Many involved in the sport hope that all this excitement and a Belmont victory by I'll Have Another will arrest the sport's free fall and begin racing's rise back to prominence among the major U.S. sports.
But it won't, because in truth there is only minimal overlap between racing's struggle for long-term survival and I'll Have Another's bid for the Triple Crown. The former is a complicated, long-term job in a sprawling, 24/7/365 industry that continues to wrestle with its ongoing transition from the racetrack experience of days long gone to a more financially viable casino experience, while creating a safe working environment for horses and humans. The latter is a moment of pure athletic greatness at the very top of the sport, where few can participate. They have no more in common than do a Hollywood blockbuster and summer stock.
But there is one enduring connection. The Triple Crown remains among the most respected—and elusive—achievements in any sport. Changes in breeding and training techniques have produced more fragile racehorses, who are less capable of navigating the demands of winning three races in five weeks, the last at the marathon distance of 1½ miles. With each Belmont failure it has become increasingly plausible that we have seen our last Triple Crown winner; and with each passing year the memories become more distant.
Now there is fresh chance. I'll Have Another appears to possess the throwback qualities of durability and race toughness required to win the Belmont. His jockey, Mario Gutierrez, has been flawless. Together they should reach the middle of the long Belmont homestretch in desperate pursuit of the leaders and of history. The big building will rock with a full-throated passion, years in the making. It is only a moment, and the sport's troubles will rise unchanged with the Sunday sun. But racing deserves that moment.
Racing can again be great for a day.