Four legs, three races, one hope.

Once again, rooting for a Triple Crown

20150531_inq_cu1lyon31-c
Ron Turcotte riding Secretariat to the 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes that clinched the 1973 Triple Crown. Secretariat's triumph ended a 25-year drought in Triple Crown winners.

Bill Lyon

is a retired Inquirer sports columnist

He's a handsome devil, and he knows it, standing there striking a regal pose, his coat glistening under the summer sun, ears up, nostrils flared, a thousand pounds of coiled, bunched muscle just waiting to be unleashed and set free to run . . . run . . . run . . .

His name is American Pharoah and yes, that's misspelled, and he is our latest hope in the annual pursuit of that elusive three-race campaign to find a super horse, to crown a Triple Crown, the Holy Grail of a sport that has fallen on hard times and is in need of a hero, four legs and all.

But the odds, and history, are daunting - in the long history of horse racing only 11 speedballs have been able to conquer the cruel and punishing gauntlet of the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby, the mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness, and the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Three races in five weeks over three different tracks. Faint of heart need not apply.

It hasn't been done since the majestic Affirmed.

Thirty-seven years ago.

So every spring we renew our yearning, and every spring when there is the same winner of the Derby and then the Preakness we stand where we will stand on Saturday next, cheering long and loud when the starting gate clangs open.

There is here, you see, no shame in rooting. Indeed, it is what makes this event unique. We are, for one summer afternoon, bound together by a common cause . . . bound together by four legs and a tail.

I can think of no other sporting event in which there is a virtual unanimity.

Eleven years ago, when Smarty Jones was run down in the stretch and denied his Triple, the winning jockey all but broke down and apologized.

So did the trainer.

And the owner.

Even up in the press box aerie, that bastion of stoic, zipped-lip objectivity, we cheer our throats raw and squirm about, trying by sheer dint of will to get the winner home.

There is an air of romanticism about the Triple Crown, something mystical. Bob Baffert, the trainer of American Pharoah, said after winning the Derby and fanning the fires of expectation: "This was good for racing. We needed a little lift."

In truth, it needs a large lift, and there is no evidence that the sport will ever again ride as high as it did during the glory years.

Ah, but for a few magical moments, when there is a marquee event, the grandstands overflow and viewership rises from 5.9 million to 13.5 million and there is nostalgic remembrance of the sweet-used-to-be.

As for the Belmont race itself, it is a stacked deck. The mile and a half is a distance almost never run, its homestretch is littered with the bleached bones of those who found it too taxing. It advertises itself as the Graveyard of Champions.

And those who arrive in the Belmont starting gate get there on short rations, not only having been asked to run in three states over three different surfaces, and here's the crusher - they will be stalked all the way around by a merciless pack of fresh-legged hunters, those who skipped the Derby or skipped the Preakness or skipped both.

Talk was renewed this time around about perhaps lengthening the dates between races. But that's all it has been, talk.

Baffert is trying for an unprecedented fourth time to win the Triple, so clearly the man knows what awaits him.

Indeed, he said right after the Preakness that he could hear them "sharpening their knives."

As for tinkering with the schedule and lengthening the time between races, Baffert suggested that, as in golf, they play it as it lies. Bold talk. Then again, he may be supremely confident that he has the best horse.

In this sport, however, the best horse doesn't always win, a fate known as racing luck, wherein bad things can happen and frequently do.

Well, American Pharoah has looked impressive in winning the Derby by relentlessly pulling away from the field and then slogging through a quagmire in the Preakness, apparently unaffected by just about anything.

We are told that he is a pussycat off the track, with a sweet disposition, rather like a house pet, begging shamelessly for carrots. But once he is urged to run, there is the sound of rolling thunder.

The man with the best view in the house is his jockey, Victor Espinoza, and this is his take: "He just floats. He's effortless."

Baffert boils it down to this: "Great horses do great things. A sport needs to have stars. A sport without stars is no sport."

And so, we wait . . .


lyon1964@comcast.net