On Saturday night, the anticipation surrounding horse racing will ultimately culminate when I'll Have Another takes on the field in an attempt to achieve the first Triple Crown in 34 years.
The horse, I'll Have Another, has risen from shear obscurity to become the unlikely fan favorite in just two short races, but the grueling mile-and-a-half course on Long Island could prove to be the difference-maker for what could end up as one for the record books, or just another fantastic run at history.
Although the 2004 run of Smarty Jones ended in heartbreak with a second-place finish at the Belmont, it was then that a 36-1 long shot in Birdstone rallied to defeat the heavy favorite despite the odds.
While this year's race will not quite mirror 2004, the fact that a complete underdog—who was not even on the radar to win any of the major races—came from behind to defeat the favorite nearly parallels it in the excitement category.
But with I’ll Have Another now the 4-5 favorite to win the final race at the Belmont Stakes and thus secure the first Triple Crown in 34 years, the pressure is finally on the underdog to preform like a champion.
After having to make desperation dashes in final lengths of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes races to catch the powerful lead horse, I’ll Have Another rose from obscurity to superstardom by just a few lengths of his tail.
Such a thrilling conclusion between two of the top horses sounds like it would turn an otherwise rather mundane sport into must-see TV.
But the rivalry will have to be put on hold for this race that could potentially end a historic drought, as the favorite’s main rival, Bodemeister, will sit out the Belmont in favor of another stallion.
Pinch-hitting so to speak in his place is a horse by the name of Paynter, who at 6-1 odds bears a very fair chance at defeating I’ll Have Another and ruining his chances at ending the Triple Crown drought.
“We’ve always been very high on him.. I always thought Paynter was the better of the two, but right now he’s going to have to step it up,” said trainer Bob Baffert.
The primary problems a two-race winner en-route to the final race at Belmont faces are the sheer length of the course and the lack of rest in between races.
The 2004 Kentucky and Preakness winner, Smarty Jones, was in the exact same position coming into Saturday’s race as I’ll Have Another is currently in having to race against some horses that are fresher and less beat up than him.
The three horses with the best odds in Dullahan at 5-1, Union Rags at 6-1 and Paynter at 8-1 are all horses that have sat out at least one race—that race being the Preakness—in preparation of halting I’ll Have Another at his final test.
For Union Rags, a potential candidate himself for the Triple Crown, everything that could have possibly gone wrong during the race, did in fact go wrong.
I really thought this horse could win the Triple Crown, and then everything went the wrong way. It's just one of those things that happens, and you have to let it go.
"It was very disappointing," said Union Rag’s trainer Michael Matz.
In the Kentucky Derby, he was bumped at the start by another favorite in Dullahan and then proceeded to get trapped inside the pack and never had a shot at victory.
But this should become less of a problem for a talented runner as the lengthy course of the Belmont makes jostling for starting position less important than ever.
As for Dullahan, trainer Dale Romans was optimistic that the No. 5 post could generate success, but even he felt that starting position plays no real importance on the Belmont track.
“No, I don’t think it’s that important,” Romans said. “With it being one and a half miles, you have time to get into position. We’re not planning on being on the lead. We’ll settle in on the first turn and try to save ground.”
Whether or not I'll Have Another will be successful is really up to his conditioning and his raw natural ability to run the lengthy distance with the necessary speed and tenacity to leave his opponents in a trail of dust.
The only thing I know for certain is that on Saturday evening at around 6:40 p.m. ET, when the gun shot resonates through the stadium and the horses' hooves dig into the dirt track, the next few minutes have a fighting chance for one horse to shatter a three-decade drought.
And that alone is enough to persuade a sports fanatic like myself to tune in to watch.