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I'll Have Another (L) with jockey Mario Gutierrez passes Bodemeister with jockey Mike E. Smith to win the 137th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, May 19, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar (Mike Segar/Reuters)
I'll Have Another (L) with jockey Mario Gutierrez passes Bodemeister with jockey Mike E. Smith to win the 137th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, May 19, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Gary Mason

Spellbound by a fast horse Add to ...

Maybe horse racing isn’t what it used to be, but one thing about the sport will never change – the public’s fascination with those rare and beautiful animals that have a chance to win the Triple Crown.

We are obsessed again, this time with a horse that has Canadian connections – not that it is critical to our interest in the matter. I’ll Have Another has a Canadian-born owner and a jockey who honed his craft on Canada’s West Coast, but while that has heightened awareness north of the 49th in the chestnut colt’s unlikely quest to claim one of the world’s most coveted titles, we would have been spellbound anyway.

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Great horses can do that to us.

Man o’ War was the first thoroughbred to capture the public’s imagination in any meaningful way. Because of his enormous size and prowess on the track, he developed an outsized reputation, not just in the United States but throughout the world. It was the early 1900s, and people found comfort and hope in this animal. Such was his unique status that when he died in 1947, his body was embalmed and placed in an oak coffin where he lay in state for visitors to pay their last respects. And they did, by the thousands.

Since then, the public has fallen for a string of horses, among them Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Seattle Slew and, the greatest of them all, Secretariat, the superstar that demolished long-held records with Canadian jockey Ron Turcotte in the saddle.

It’s been 34 years since the world last witnessed a Triple Crown winner – the longest drought since the honour was created. The last to do it was Affirmed in 1978. Since then, 11 have won the first two stages of the trilogy – the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness – only to lose the Belmont, at 1½ miles the most gruelling of the three races.

There is a reason that just 11 horses have won the Triple Crown since 1919, when Sir Barton first did it: It’s phenomenally difficult. It’s the equivalent of winning three title fights over five weeks. That is why we cheer so hard behind any horse that has the opportunity. We love witnessing the rare feat – an exceptional achievement under extraordinary pressure.

The Triple Crown is all of that.

Racehorses, like track athletes, are often built for speed or stamina – but not both. But to win the Triple Crown, you need a combination of the two because the distances of the three races vary so greatly. Racehorses, meanwhile, can be just as temperamental as humans. If they wake up on the wrong side of the stall on the morning of a big race, it can spell doom.

Track conditions often play a role in who wins, as does the ability of the jockey to read a race as it’s unfolding. So many things have to fall into place for the Triple Crown to be won. But when they do, the shared experience can galvanize us and lift us up, however temporarily.

We’ll likely be rooting for I’ll Have Another a little harder than other Triple Crown contenders, and not just because of his Canadian associations. The horse and his jockey, Mario Gutierrez, are both underdogs, a fact that makes cheering for them even easier.

I’ll Have Another was purchased for a measly $35,000, a pittance compared with the staggering amounts that can be paid for horses of grander lineage. Perhaps that’s why it has never been favoured in any of its races.

Mario Gutierrez, meanwhile, was plucked out of virtual obscurity, a jockey toiling for the past six years in the racing outpost of Vancouver’s Hastings Park. A chance meeting with an 85-year-old semi-retired horse-racing agent named Ivan Puhich set off an unlikely chain of events that culminated in Mr. Gutierrez getting the ride of a lifetime.

The Hollywood script writes itself.

Now we wait for the big moment to arrive. When it does the world will be watching, riveted by the prospect of witnessing the uncommon spectacle and smitten by a horse, his jockey and their improbable story.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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