Another Triple Crown season is over, leaving bittersweet memories.
Sweet because I'll Have Another reminded fans how magnificent a top Thoroughbred can be - full of run, full of determination as he dug deep to nail very fast Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Sweet because this hard-hitting Flower Alley colt, purchased for $35,000, and his 25-year-old rider, Mario Gutierrez, mature beyond his years, put us all on the edge of our seats in believing they would accomplish the first Triple Crown sweep in 34 years.
Bitter because no one will ever know the heights I'll Have Another might have attained. How will history remember the winner of five of seven starts with one second-place finish for earnings of $2,693,600?
"Any horse who wins the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness is a great horse," said trainer Ken McPeek, who took third in the anticlimatic Belmont Stakes with Atigun and sixth with Unstoppable U. "Those are serious Grade 1 races."
They sure are. And I'll Have Another found a way each time. His Santa Anita win amounted to a slugfest with a bruiser named Creative Cause when he prevailed by a nose after a heart-pounding stretch run. Gutierrez sat chilly as Bodemeister set hot fractions in the Run for the Roses before his mount unleashed an explosive move for a 1 1/2-length score. Although Bodemeister set a moderate pace in the Preakness, I'll Have Another still got there by an unforgettable neck.
Steve Haskin, veteran columnist for the Blood-Horse, compared racing's fallen star to Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex. Smarty Jones rolled in the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2004 before being thwarted in the "Test of the Champion." Afleet Alex withstood a collision in the Preakness and ruled the Belmont by seven lengths.
"They looked as though they had superstardom in their futures and were injured and not able to go on with their careers," Haskin said.
He saw vast possibilities with I'll Have Another.
"He did have potential to be a superstar," Haskin said. "He did have the pedigree, he did have the versatility, and his constitution was probably as strong as any horse I've seen in a long time with those daily gallop-breezes, as I call them."
The Triple Crown challenge can be incredibly wearing on three-year-olds. Yet McPeek saw no sign of wear and tear this time around.
"When they put us in the holding barn," he recalled, "he was a bundle of energy.
"I watched him walk the shedrow last Wednesday and he nearly kicked a feed tub off the wall. He had plenty of energy left. He might very well have won it if he hadn't had the tendon injury."
For heartbroken fans, consolation must come from seeing other potential stars emerge in what continues to be an exceptional crop. Union Rags, unlucky for so long, finally got the break he needed. He demonstrated his abundant talent when he charged up the rail past Paynter to win the Belmont Stakes.
Paynter was all speed, heart and stamina in a narrow miss in only his fifth career start for trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat. His future appears to be at least as bright as that of stablemate Bodemeister, who stayed tough as nails despite going unraced at two and being asked to make six starts in four short months, the last four of those in graded stakes.
As much as I'll Have Another will be sorely missed, the Haskell Invitational Stakes, the Travers Stakes and the rest of the season cannot come soon enough.