I have covered every Triple Crown race since 1998, when I watched with exhilaration and then dismay as Real Quiet took command at the top of the stretch and appeared to be closing in on racing immortality, only to be overtaken at the last agonizing instant by Victory Gallop in the Belmont Stakes.
My respect for what might be the sternest challenge in all of sports has only grown since then as other potential Triple Crown champions failed. Poor Charismatic was vanned off in 1999. War Emblem stumbled badly at the start in 2002. Funny Cide tried to do too much too soon in 2003. Smarty Jones, softened by early challenges, had nothing left to answer 36-1 Birdstone's late charge a year after that. The wheels inexplicably came off Big Brown in 2008.
Competition: With speedy Bodemeister having had enough, Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Dullahan and Union Rags, seventh in the Run for the Roses, are viewed as the primary threats. Dullahan's next victory on dirt will be his first. Seemingly star-crossed Union Rags keeps finding ways to lose. He got a very wide trip when he fell short by a head in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November. He was hurt by a Gulfstream Park surface that played for speed, speed, speed the day of the Florida Derby. He was squeezed at the start of the Kentucky Derby and dropped back to 18th in the early going there. Some horses are flat out unlucky. Sadly, Union Rags appears to fit that category.
Demeanor: Nothing seems to bother this 3-year-old - not the crowd at Churchill Downs, not the throng at Pimlico Race Course, not the movement from Southern California to Kentucky to Baltimore to New York. To all appearances, he is the same gleaming chestnut colt as when he started.
Distance: Distance limitations? Hardly. The Flower Alley colt did his best running late in nailing Bodemeister in the first two legs of the 2012 Triple Crown and galloped out powerfully. If anything, he should welcome the mile and a half more than most other starters.
Freshness: Trainer Doug O'Neill often says sore shins last autumn were a blessing in disguise for his colt. They eliminated any thought of competing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a race that can take a toll on still-developing youngsters, and gave I'll Have Another time to develop and mature away from the rigors of competition.
Overall speed: Despite the disadvantage of breaking from far outside in post position 19, I'll Have Another completed the 1 ¬-mile Kentucky Derby in 2:01.83, swiftest since Big Brown's clocking of 2:01.82 in 2008. He produced the third-fastest time in the last nine editions of the Derby. He is keeping exclusive company, since Barbaro (2:01.36 in 2006) tops the list.
Quality owner: J. Paul Reddam, a former philosophy professor who made a fortune in the lending business, provides his trainers and horses with the best of everything. It matters.
Quality trainer: For all of the controversy surrounding him, Doug O'Neill turns what look to be modest horses into something special. He did it with Lava Man, a $50,000 claim who surpassed $5.2 million in earnings. He did it with Fleetstreet Dancer, who O'Neill claimed for $40,000 and went on to win the $2 million Japan Dirt Cup. And now he's done it with I'll Have Another, a $35,000 bargain out of a 2-year-olds in training sale.
Quality jockey: Sure, he is young and inexperienced, but you would never know it the way Mario Gutierrez rides. I'll Have Another is 4-for-4 since the 25-year-old hopped aboard. Don't think that is a coincidence.
Stride: He possesses such a natural, ground-swallowing stride that O'Neill did not see any need to work him at any of the Triple Crown sites. Strong morning gallops have him at the top of his game.
Tactical speed: Gutierrez can place him anywhere he chooses, depending on pace. This is crucial, because deep closers rarely come on to win the Belmont.
Timing: The 34-year drought is the longest since the Triple Crown as we know it came into existence in the U.S. It's time.
Willpower: I'll Have Another packs plenty of horsepower. More importantly, he has repeatedly demonstrated an enormous will to win. That must-have quality was demonstrated when he outfought scrappy Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby. His determination was captivating when he dug deep to rally past Bodemeister by a neck in the Preakness Stakes.