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Winning Triple Crown tougher than in ’78

In two weeks, I’ll Have Another will have the opportunity to become the 12th Triple Crown champion by winning the Belmont Stakes. No horse has swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.

A comparison of what Affirmed was up against 34 years ago to what I’ll Have Another has faced will show how difficult this task has become.

Affirmed beat a field of 11 horses in his Kentucky Derby. The public liked only four of them: Alydar (6-5), Affirmed (9-5), Sensitive Prince (9-2) and Believe It (7-1). The rest were at 33-1 odds and higher.

I’ll Have Another beat a 20-horse Derby field. A maximum field of 20 is now the Derby norm. The horse and rider, Mario Gutierrez, did a terrific job getting a clear trip in beating Bodemeister.

In the Preakness, Affirmed beat a field of seven, and again the runner-up was Alydar. Only three Derby horses ran back: Affirmed, Alydar and Believe It, and they ended up 1-2-3.

I’ll Have Another won the Preakness in an 11-horse field of which six were Derby starters. Derby horses finished 1-2-3. I’ll Have Another ran a career-best race to beat Bodemeister again.

I thought the Belmont was both Affirmed’s easiest and hardest race to win – easiest because only five horses were entered and hardest because the one colt to beat was Alydar, who ran second in all three Triple Crown races.

I’ll Have Another, meanwhile, could head a Belmont field of as many as 13 horses. Most are lying in wait and are well rested. There might be seven new shooters and four who ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness.

On numbers alone, Affirmed’s task was easier being among 23 starters in the Triple Crown series. I’ll Have Another will be among 44 starters.

The luck factor is multiplied in larger fields. Not only is it more difficult staying out of trouble, but the chances of a long shot running the race of his life goes up, too.

Affirmed had one horse to beat to win the Triple Crown – Alydar. I’ll Have Another’s main nemesis, Bodemeister, is skipping the Belmont only to be replaced by other dangerous foes.

For example, with five weeks’ rest giving each trainer a chance to batten down the hatches, Derby graduates Alpha, Dullahan and Union Rags are capable of rebounding in a big way.

In 2004, William Rhoden of the New York Times wrote that the Belmont Stakes loss by Smarty Jones, who was going for the Triple Crown, was “racing’s finest hour,” that “the field could have laid down and allowed Smarty Jones to manufacture history.”

It didn’t.

On June 9, a dozen horses and riders will be trying their best to defeat I’ll Have Another. If he wins the Belmont, he’ll have to earn it. Our great sport wouldn’t have it any other way.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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