Cot and Anne Campbell make the trip every June to the Belmont Stakes – drawn by the energy of New York City and the grandiose Belmont Park.
Every now and then, that energy boils over into Triple Crown hysteria when a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner tries to complete the sweep over the one-and-a-half-mile “Test of the Champion.” Eleven 3-year-old thoroughbreds have passed that test since 1919. Many more have failed in front of the raucous 100,000-plus New Yorkers eager to witness history.
“It’s always a boon to Belmont Park and to racing when a horse comes into the Belmont having won the previous two,” said Campbell, the semi-retired founder of Dogwood Stable in Aiken. “If the horse doesn’t win, you can hear a pin drop.”
Campbell has heard the pins drop 11 times since Affirmed held off Alydar in three acts to win the Triple Crown in 1978 – a 34-year drought that is the longest in history. The latest hope of snapping the trend is a charging chestnut colt named I’ll Have Another.
“This horse certainly has all the ingredients,” Campbell said. “He’s bred to go that far of any of them are in this race. He’s certainly got the temperament. He’s an easygoing horse. You can do anything with him in a race – lay up close or take him way back.”
Jockey Mario Gutierrez has taken the laid back approach to victory in the previous two legs. I’ll Have Another charged down the stretch at both Churchill Downs and Pimlico, catching the front-running Bodemeister both times before reaching the wire.
In fact, I’ll Have Another has led a combined total of less than five seconds in both races, nipping Bodemeister by a nose on the last stride of the Preakness to set up the Triple Crown shot. Bodemeister, in the other hand, led the first two legs by a total of at least 3 minutes, 35 seconds – crossing the line in second both times with hardly a speck of dirt splattered on his glistening bay coat.
“That’s interesting,” said Campbell of Gutierrez’s perfect timing on his mount. “That’s kind of what he wants to do this time. I’d say the only thing against this horse would be the rider, who God knows has not made any mistakes so far. A wonderful performance. But he is on a mile-and-a-half race track this time. It’s kind of like a baseball player playing on a diamond that’s moved back 30 feet or something. If he just doesn’t get antsy and want to go too soon … that has been the downfall of a few of them in the past.”
I’ll Have Another won’t have to worry about Bodemeister this time, as the two-time runner-up was held out of the longer Belmont. But instead he will have to contend with a couple of rested challengers who sat out the Preakness – Dullahan and Union Rags, who finished third and seventh, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby.
“I’d say it’s a little tougher field than some of the previous times horses have gone for the Triple Crown,” said Campbell of the 11 challengers I’ll Have Another will face on Saturday. “He’s got two real tough horses that are fresh and primed to run a big race here. Union Rags is a big, long-striding, galloping kind of horse that ought to like the Belmont.”
One of them or a longshot could play the all-too-familiar role of spoiler on Saturday and kill the Triple Crown buzz. After a 25-year drought was obliterated by the incomparable Secretariat in 1973, we got used to seeing horses make history. Seattle Slew did it again in 1977 and Affirmed backed it up in ’78.
It seemed a foregone conclusion that Spectacular Bid would complete the sweep again in 1979, but the overwhelming favorite faded to third in the stretch as supplemental entry Coastal surged along the rail to an upset.
It’s become a familiar refrain of near-misses and letdowns by contenders and pretenders since.
Pleasant Colony couldn’t chase down Summing in 1981, showing third.
Alysheba, without Lasix, couldn’t keep up with Derby and Preakness runner-up Bet Twice in 1987, finishing fourth.
Sunday Silence got left in the dirt at the far turn by rival Easy Goer, who avenged runner-up finishes in the first two legs with an eight-length romp in the second-fastest Belmont ever in 1989.
Silver Charm got caught in the final strides by Touch Gold in a mad three-horse stretch dash in 1997.
Real Quiet lost the closest bid ever by a churning Victory Gallop in 1998, as the Derby and Preakness runner-up claimed a photo finish win in the final stride.
Charismatic got pulled up in the stretch by jockey Chris Antley in 1999, letting Lemon Drop Kid win the day against the front-running favorite whose left front leg was broken in two places and retired to stud after showing.
War Emblem stumbled out of the gate in 2002, failing to catch 70-to-1 longshot Sarava.
Funny Cide failed on a sloppy track in 2003, the local gelding fading to third in a stretch duel with Empire Maker.
Smarty Jones, undefeated and as close to a sure thing as there’s been since the heady ’70s, stubbornly gave up the lead in the last 50 yards to Birdstone in front of a record 120,000 fans in 2004.
Big Brown eased up at the top of the stretch as Da’Tara went wire-to-wire in 2008.
Now it’s I’ll Have Another’s chance to see if the 12th bid in 2012 is the charm.
Campbell hopes he doesn’t hear that pin drop again.
“He’s got a good shot to do it and it’d be a great thing for racing if he did,” he said.