Martin Fennelly Columns
Finally, a charge at Triple Crown history
Horse racing matters this week. You can't even hear its death rattle. Against all the odds, and its own barbarity, horse racing matters this week. It will certainly matter early Saturday night. That's when a 3-year-old named I'll Have Another breaks from the gate in Elmont, N.Y., to try to make history, to outlast the endless Belmont Stakes and deliver a Triple Crown – the first in 34 years. We'll know about two and a half minutes later. Horse racing matters right now.It's kind of like boxing matters when the fight is big, as if there are any of those fights anymore, what with champions doing time or ducking match-ups. Triple Crown horses don't run away from history, they run toward it. True, they have no choice. If you asked a thoroughbred race horse what he'd like to do, and he could answer, the first four answers would be eat, sleep, eat and, of course, meet Tim Tebow. He's up in New York, isn't he? I'll Have Another is king of New York this week. Horse racing matters. Even if we don't watch racing much anymore, or at all, we Americans love history, love special. Only 11 horses have ever won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. The last time it happened was when Affirmed won three epic duels with Alydar in seven weeks. There might not be seven more grueling weeks in sports. Since 1978, 11 horses have come to the Belmont with a chance at the Crown – and come away as empty as empty gets. There are no second chances. We checked: A horse is 3 years old once. "You get one shot in a lifetime," Hall of Fame jockey and NBC commentator Gary Stevens said during a Belmont teleconference on Monday. We do love special when it comes to sports, on two legs or four. People who could care less about horse racing might care this Saturday. Is this the day? Is this the one? What an awful sport horse racing can be. There was 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro breaking down at the Preakness. He eventually lost his life. The next year, a filly named Eight Belles finished second in the Derby, only to have her ankles explode after the finish. She was euthanized in front of everyone at Churchill Downs. The dark side is never far away. Even this week it's there, in I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill, who has been nailed for any number of violations and faces a suspension for what amounts to juicing horses. "I'll Have Another is a pure horse," O'Neill told NBC's Bob Costas. No one wants a dirty Triple Crown winner. Horse racing matters this week. NBC Belmont co-host Tom Hammond said, "I just think with so many problems facing horse racing, you get a chance for the Triple Crown and it captures everyone's imagination and you remember what attracted you to racing in the first place, the color, all the stories. It penetrates the average sports fan. They go, 'Boy, I better watch this, because this doesn't happen very often.'" Gary Stevens has been on both sides of the Triple Crown fence, lived both ends of the Belmont's mile-and-a-half meat grinder – in consecutive years, no less. In 1997, Stevens was aboard Crown hopeful Silver Charm, 50 yards from history, when they were caught a few strides from the finish by Touch Gold. In 1998, Stevens and Victory Gallop denied Crown hopeful Real Quiet at the wire, winning by a nose, a photo finish. Stevens still talks about losing the Crown. "The joy that I felt the last 1/16th of a mile was a hundred-thousand times more than I'd felt in the Kentucky Derby – and the disappointment that I felt two strides from the finish line was the most disappointing moment of my life. And there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it, especially at this time of year, with the Triple Crown on the line." That it will be on Saturday night. Horse racing will matter, then and there.