If anyone needed help comprehending the achingly long drought since horseracing's last Triple Crown winner, I'll Have Another spelled it out Friday on the eve of today's Belmont Stakes.
A case of tendinitis apparently sidelined the 3-year-old chestnut colt before the chance to defend his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories and possibly claim the first Triple Crown in 34 years.
Affirmed (1978) was the most recent of only 11 thoroughbreds to claim the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes since 1919, and skeptics had already questioned I'll Have Another's durability in the weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes today.
So now the horse stands where a dozen horses have stood since the Affirmed Triple Crown title: winners of the first two jewels who failed to capture the Belmont Stakes.
Here are some theories for what keeps getting in the way.
|Too Many Horses|
This theory is grounded in probability, that the more horses in a race, the more difficult it is statistically to win. "In days gone by, we didn't have a full field come back in the Preakness and the Belmont," Graham Motion, the trainer of Went the Day Well and last year's Derby winner Animal Kingdom, told the Wall Street Journal last month.
Affirmed faced four horses in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. Even without I'll Have Another today, there will be 11 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
|Too Short Recovery Time|
Three top-flight races in five weeks is a mountain of stress for any horse, especially with the longer Belmont Stakes completing the cycle in New York. "A lot of horses can handle the Derby and the Preakness, and can't handle the Belmont," Louie Roussel III, who was trainer and co-owner of 1988 Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune two years ago. "The mile and a half is the true test of a champion."
Not that he was complaining: "The Triple Crown is like an iron-man contest. This is what makes the thing so wonderful."
|Too Many Prep Races|
Renowned horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas has pointed to the increasing importance of prep races to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, which take their toll. "Before, you didn't have to work up so hard in February and March to get ready for the Derby," he told the Times-Picayune.
Big Brown was the last horse to win the Derby and Preakness before losing the Belmont, in 2008.
|Too Much Speed Focus|
Lukas also pointed to breeders who sacrifice endurance for speed. "I think there's a trend to horses that look a little quicker," he said. "Distance horses are longer and leaner."
|Too Much Attention|
The Derby and Preakness winner is always a marked colt. And what competing owner wouldn't savor the thrill of denying the horse with the most to lose, a coveted Triple Crown.
So, this year, for instance, two of the three horses that had been given the best chance to knock off favored I'll Have Another lost to him in the Derby before they sat out the Preakness (Dullahan is one of them). The third top rival this weekend skipped the Derby and the Preakness. That kind of rest might work in their favor.
|Too Little Luck|
Yes, speed is paramount, along with resiliency and a jockey who knows his horse. But a run of good fortune doesn't hurt, either.
I'll Have Another needed it.