Past Triple Crown winners ready to pass torch
Patrice Wolfson had doubts about relinquishing her status as the owner of the last Triple Crown winner. She wasn't sure that some of the 11 horses who attempted to join Affirmed atop racing's pinnacle were worthy of such status.
None of them succeeded in sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, leaving Affirmed as the 11th and last horse to accomplish the feat in 1978.
Now Wolfson and other members of this exclusive club say they're ready to welcome a newcomer to their ranks. They're impressed by I'll Have Another, who will try to win the oldest and longest race of the series, the Belmont Stakes, which will be run for the 144th time on June 9.
Wolfson said I'll Have Another reminds her "a little tiny bit" of Affirmed because he loves to run and is just as thrilling to watch.
"He looks like he would be a good successor if it comes about," she said Wednesday. "Maybe the time has come now. Racing needs a horse that will bring a lot of excitement and this little guy can do that. He can be very exciting."
I'll Have Another chased down pacesetter Bodemeister in the final 100 yards to win the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, the chestnut colt surged past Bodemeister a few yards from the finish line in the Preakness to win by a neck.
Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen had their share of close calls, too. They defeated Alydar by 1 1-2 lengths in the Derby, then won the Preakness by a neck over their same rival.
The two horses staged one of the sport's greatest showdowns in the 1 1-2-mile Belmont.
Affirmed loped along on the early lead with Alydar and jockey Jorge Velasquez back in third. At the mile pole, Alydar moved alongside Affirmed and the two horses raced stride-for-stride to the top of the long stretch.
"I remember thinking we were going to have to dig deep because I knew Alydar was breathing down our neck," recalled Cauthen, who was 18 at the time.
The two horses were inches apart, with Affirmed on the rail, forcing Cauthen to switch his whip from his right hand to his left.
He hit Affirmed and the colt crossed the finish line a head in front of Alydar, giving the sport its second straight Triple Crown winner. Seattle Slew had accomplished the feat a year before.
"The way Steve handled Affirmed coming down that stretch, it was incredible," Wolfson said.
Cauthen added, "It was a thrilling way to win the Triple Crown."
Penny Chenery owned Secretariat, whose dominating sweep of the 1973 series snapped a 25-year drought between Triple Crown winners.
"I happen to think I'll Have Another can do it," said Chenery, now 90.
Secretariat turned his coronation in the Belmont into a romp. Under Ron Turcotte, the chestnut colt nicknamed "Big Red" won by an astounding 31 lengths in a record time of 2:22 for the grueling race.
"I was very confident going into the race and remained confident during the race," Turcotte said. "I didn't think a horse in the world could beat him."
After shaking off Derby and Preakness runner-up Sham on the backstretch, Secretariat gathered momentum with every stride, putting more and more distance between him and the other four horses.
It was quiet enough in front that Turcotte could hear track announcer Chick Anderson's famed call, "Secretariat is alone. He is moving like a tremendous machine."
"I just took a peek at the back and that's the point where (trainer) Lucien (Lauren) said, 'Oh my God, Ron is going to fall off,'" he said. "I wasn't worried at all because I hadn't set my horse down."
Bodemeister won't be back to challenge I'll Have Another in the Belmont. But 10 other rivals are expected, including Derby also-rans Alpha, Dullahan, Optimizer and Union Rags.
Unlike Secretariat, who was based at Belmont, I'll Have Another comes from California, along with his trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez, who has never ridden at sprawling Belmont Park.
O'Neill sought out Seattle Slew's trainer Billy Turner for advice on a track he doesn't know well. Turner said the 44-year-old Californian wanted to know about everything from the deep, sandy racing surface to the crew that works the starting gate.
"He impressed me. Those are the right questions," Turner said. "He's very astute and he's covering all the bases. He's taking this thing very seriously."
O'Neill added, "He gave us a lot of helpful tips on how to prepare our guy for the big one."
Cauthen will be rooting for Gutierrez to succeed. The 25-year-old jockey from Mexico is seven years older than Cauthen was when he was on racing's biggest stage 34 years ago.
"I admire his confidence and his relaxed attitude and his gratitude for the situation he's in," said Cauthen, who runs a breeding farm in Verona, Ky.
Affirmed came into the Belmont having won all six of his races as a 3-year-old. I'll Have Another is 4-for-4 so far this year, having gotten a two-month break between his first and second starts.
That rest could prove beneficial when I'll Have Another is staring down the 1,097-foot stretch at Belmont.
"He really has a lot of try in him. You can just tell by way he dug into the stretch in the Derby and the Preakness," Cauthen said. "He loves to run and he's not afraid of the battle. He's a very relaxed horse like Affirmed was, nothing seems to bother him."