On Saturday, the momentous question of 2012 will have an answer.
Can I'll Have Another have another? Can he complete the sweep? Can he become Thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown champion in 34 years?
The answer will be found in a 1«-mile journey around the nation's largest track, when one more victory will assure horse, rider, trainer and owner of everlasting fame.
On race day - Saturday - the odds will be in the neighborhood of even money that I'll Have Another will add a victory in the Belmont Stakes to wins earlier this month in the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby. Yet now, before the field is even finalized, a more generalized review of his chances seems in order. Let's allow history and the events that have been witnessed over the course of 34 years dotted with near misses to be a guide to what can happen on the second Saturday in June at Belmont Park.
Is I'll Have Another more akin to Affirmed or Sunday Silence?
To help answer that question, several points on the worthiness of I'll Have Another to become the 12th Triple Crown winner will be raised with pros and cons on the subject. Read them, ponder them, and wonder if the three-decade-old drought will end.
Does I'll Have Another have the proper stature to become a Triple Crown champion?
CON: It's hard to believe a horse taking aim at the Triple Crown has never been sent off as the favorite. He was 43-to-1 in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2) and 15-to-1 in the Kentucky Derby. He wasn't even favored in the Preakness. Considering that the last four Triple Crown winners-Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Citation-all were two-year-old champions, the son of Flower Alley simply does not have the feel of royalty.
PRO: He may not have been a champion at two, but he was good enough to finish second to Creative Cause in the Best Pal Stakes (G2). Plus, he's undefeated this year. He's done nothing wrong. He's not like Pleasant Colony (1981) or Charismatic (1999) who blossomed right before their Derby and Preakness triumphs. Seattle Slew (1977), Sunday Silence (1989) and Smarty Jones (2004) also were undefeated at three heading into the Belmont, putting him among a rather classy bunch.
Will 25-year-old rider Mario Gutierrez handle the pressure of the situation?
CON: Trainer Woody Stephens, who would never hesitate to point out his five straight Belmont Stakes wins, used to say that the buildings get pretty tall once you cross the Hudson River. Gutierrez might indeed get a stiff neck looking up at all of those skyscrapers and the bright lights of Broadway. A native of Mexico, Gutierrez had been riding at Hastings Race Course in Canada before becoming a national sensation in the U.S. through his cool, patient rides this spring on I'll Have Another. But now the pressure and expectations have gone through the roof and he and I'll Have Another-not Bodemeister-will be the horse and rider with the target on their backs in the Belmont. One mistake in judgment and it's time to join Meat Loaf in a chorus of "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad."
Plus, Gutierrez will indeed be riding at Belmont Park in advance of the race, but will mounts in six-furlong sprints or one-turn 1 1/16-mile races educate him on the precise moment when he'll have to ask I'll Have Another for a winning move? Probably not.
PRO: After the Preakness, Bob Baffert, who trains Bodemeister, praised Gutierrez for his patient rides and wondered if he's "too young to realize what's going on." Baffert may be on to something. Gutierrez seems to be reveling in a moment he might never see again, and appears amazingly unflappable for someone so new to the spotlight. Perhaps he'll be immune to the many distractions the Big Apple can offer.
Also, it will be interesting to see how much "race riding" takes place in the Belmont. In 1979, it's believed a safety pin ended Spectacular Bid's Triple Crown hopes. Yet the fiercely competitive Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero also may have gotten into Ron Franklin's head and planted the seed for quick early fractions that caught up with "Bid." In 2004, Jerry Bailey on Eddington and Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten gave no quarter to Smarty Jones in the early stages of the Belmont. Yet will any members of the modern day riding colony in New York be as staunchly protective of their home turf? Will they play mind games with Gutierrez? Unless Cordero and/or Bailey come out of retirement on June 9, the answer might be no.
With a three-year-old class this deep and talented, how can I'll Have Another pull off a sweep?
PRO: Even after winning the Derby and Preakness, I'll Have Another is not scaring anyone. There could be 11 challengers lined up to face him on June 9. Included are Dullahan, who was a closing third in the Derby and will have five weeks of rest heading into the "Test of the Champion"; Union Rags, who was the second betting choice in the Derby and also has five weeks rest; and Paynter, who has Ragozin Speed Figures better than stablemate Bodemeister and equal to I'll Have Another on both horses' best day.
Speed figures show that I'll Have Another is not considerably faster than some of his main rivals, so, with a small margin of error, anything less than his "A" race would make him vulnerable. Secretariat (1973), on the other hand, could have run his "X, Y or Z" race and still captured the Belmont.
CON: Really, how tough are the challengers lining up to face I'll Have Another? Dullahan ran fine at Churchill Downs, but will he handle "Big Sandy"? With Union Rags being a son of Dixie Union, is he really a legitimate candidate to handle 1 « miles? Paynter may have run fast enough to win a Triple Crown race when he sizzled in an allowance contest at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness Day, but can such a lightly seasoned three-year-old have another awesome effort left in him?
And can we forget the possible challengers could include the "mighty" Guyana Star Dweej, who was sent off at 55-to-1 in a maiden race less than three months ago?
Seattle Slew didn't need help, but he got it in having to beat mediocre runners like Run Dusty Run, Iron Constitution and Sanhedrin to complete his sweep. I'll Have Another's competition just might be equally mediocre.
Will the intangibles or fate work against I'll Have Another?
CON: Hey, what happens if it pours? I'll Have Another's only bad effort came in the slop at Saratoga Race Course last year, and for the better part of the last week, New York has been doing a pretty good imitation of Seattle.
Plus, Smarty Jones seemed a lock and got beat at less than 2-to-5? Why is I'll Have Another any different? After 34 years, one learns to be skeptical.
PRO: Nothing lasts forever, even Triple Crown droughts. Real Quiet was hardly an immortal of the sport and fell just a nose shy of a sweep. I'll Have Another didn't run off the charts in the Preakness like Funny Cide (2003) and Smarty Jones did, so maybe he has one more classic effort left deep inside him.
Yes, maybe. We'll know for sure on June 9.