As I’ll Have Another charged down the Preakness Stakes racing track to overtake his rival Bodemeister on May 19, his thunderous run not too dissimilar from the way he took the Kentucky Derby two weeks prior, one thing was completely evident: this was the essence of sport.
A rush of excitement that felt like a slow motion film, yet took only seconds to resolve. The triumph of an oft-disrespected underdog turned figure destined for history. A microcosm of the history and greatness of horse racing. This is what sports are about, and I’ll Have Another’s run was every bit of it.
And yet skepticism abounds. Skepticism toward the goal of the Triple Crown, which has not been achieved in 34 years. Skepticism for the game, which has taken deep hits in the wake of a weakened economy and constant pressure from animal rights groups.
At its peak, horse racing was a sport that enjoyed national recognition and a devoted following from all Americans. Now, much like boxing, horse racing is a dying sport with a severely decreased fan base. Yes, this fan base remains characterized by intense dedication, and yes, hundreds of thousands still attend the big events, wagering millions of dollars on the results, but the truth is that the sport has taken more hits than any boxer ever will.
This is due to the nature of the sport, specifically in its treatment of horses. Though many safety procedures and precautions have been put in place, hundreds of horses are injured each year, and some of these injuries result in death. The stigma of animal cruelty is one that the sport has failed to shake, and it will need something significant to turn the tide.
An ailing economy has not helped either. Horse racing is a sport deeply involved with gambling and based upon discretionary income, and it is struggling to attract patrons who run the risk of losing their money.
For many years, those within the horse racing community have said that a Triple Crown winner will invigorate the fanbase. But that itself is another issue. Three and a half decades is a long time to wait for a crowning achievement, and it is a very difficult to reach the level of a Secretariat or a Seattle Slew. This is not to say there have not been contenders.
Since Affirmed claimed the Triple Crown in 1978, eleven horses have come into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to secure a place in history, six times between 1997 and 2004 alone. Each time fans have been left disappointed. As the twelfth candidate, I’ll Have Another faces the same challenge that the likes of Real Quiet, Smarty Jones and Big Brown failed to meet.
I’ll Have Another does have the advantage of not having to face Bodemeister, his most ardent competitor, who will skip the Belmont. He will, however, have to contend with Kentucky Derby favorite Union Rags, who skipped the Preakness in favor of training for the mile-and-a-half long beast of a race that is the final leg of the Triple Crown.
If I’ll Have Another triumphs in New York, it will complete a journey of rags to riches ripped straight from the movies. The chestnut colt, purchased for $35,000 and currently boasting over $2 million in career earnings, still has never gone off as the favorite in a race. That is sure to change three weeks from now.
If he fails, he’ll join the ranks of the other Triple Crown hopefuls that fell short and will increase discussion about the unlikelihood that the feat will ever be accomplished again.
From my perspective, I fully expect to see the colt stalk the lead down the Belmont Park backstretch, turning for home in prime position to strike, shooting like a bullet out of a gun and crossing the finish line to the roar of over one hundred thousand jubilated sports fans.
I don’t know what impact it will have on the sport as a whole, but I do know that for that moment, that split second, the sports world will know perfection.