Horse Watch

Pressure Mounts as Belmont Stakes Draws Near

You can count the days on one hand now.  Saturday June 9th will be one the racing community will never forget…one way or another.  I remember watching the Belmont in 2008 on a television set inside Wal-Mart on my way to a friends wedding.  Honestly I believed Big Brown was a virtual lock that day.  Surely he would over-power this rag-tag bunch that had been assembled.  The result, or course, was a dead last finish leaving the racing world in shock.  Several people were happy with this result considering the strong dislike for Richard Dutrow, but I can remember feeling a little disappointed.  The horse was not one of my favorites, but it was history in the making…and it didn’t happen.

In 2004, my heart was literally broken.  Smarty Jones was the most popular horse in the country by far, and was probably the first horse I had a deep affection for.  He raced at my home track at Oaklawn, and his connections were all class.  His loss, and the heartache afterward, was similar to the way I felt after Zenyatta lost the Breeders Cup Classic in 2010.  Numbness, disbelief, sadness, which of course turned to blame.  While Big Brown’s loss was stunning, this one was a little different.  It looked as though Smarty was going to win until the very end, so the heart-break was intensified.  Smarty’s loss is one people around my neck of the woods will never fully get over.

So now we look ahead to five days from now.  Literally every one of us will be feeling different from how we normally do as race fans.  The concerns are certainly there.  Will I’ll Have Another run the same without his nasal strip?  Can Doug O’Neill continue to block out distractions, and hold it all together?  Can Mario Gutierrez handle the pressure one more time, and make his way into racing immortality?  What about I’ll Have Another…can he effectively get the mile and a half distance?  Finally, are horses like Dullahan, Union Rags, and Paynter primed and ready to pull off the major upset?  We don’t know the answers to any of these questions!

I’ll readily admit that the above questions won’t keep me up at night.  The truth is I’ve never pulled for or even bet on I’ll Have Another.  Being an Oaklawn guy, I was and still am a Bodemeister fan.  If Bode was in this spot, sleepless nights would be the norm for me this week.  Even with Bode not running, I’ll still pull for his connections when they saddle Paynter on Saturday.  Baffert and Zayat are as classy as they come, as well as jockey Mike Smith.  I’ll also be pulling for Optimizer and Atigun, two horses that have Oaklawn on their past performances.  As of now it’s easy for me to say these things, but when the gates open on Saturday there will be only one horse I’ll actually have an eye on.  It’s the I’ll Have Another’s show!  The entire racing world will be focused on him, and I have a feeling at the moment I’ll most likely forget all the others I’ve mentioned and shift my interests to him.  How can you not?

In the end, this is the type of race that will have all our stomach’s churning.  It’s the type of race that we live for; it’s our day in the sun.  A win by I’ll Have Another will put our sport in the national news for something positive.  That would be a welcomed site considering all the bad press we always seem to attract.  Hopefully a Triple Crown win will educate the public in some way about the quality people in racing.  I’ve often wondered if I’d ever see a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime.  Now we’re literally two minutes away from it happening.  But as we know, these two minutes are the toughest two in racing.  There’s no question I’ll Have Another is a special horse, and he does not need to win this race to prove that.  With that being said, this race can launch him into another stratosphere!  As each day passes this week, the pressure will continue to intensify.

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