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Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another gallops at Belmont Park as he prepares for the June 9 Belmont Stakes.
In early 2011, a two-year-old colt with an unexceptional pedigree was bought at auction for $35,000 by J. Paul Reddam, who named him I'll Have Another.
Cinderella might have been more appropriate.
The horse went on to win this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and on Saturday is the favorite to win the Belmont Stakes, which would bring Reddam $620,000 and horse racing's first Triple Crown in 34 years.
An impressive return, by any measure. But that six-figure prize is mere pocket change compared to the cascade of cash, and less tangible rewards, that will result from a victory this weekend -- not only for Reddam and his team, but also for Belmont Park, and racing itself.
If history is a reliable guide, the race will draw more than 100,000 people to the track, and more than $100 million in bets. Television ratings will soar.
If he wins, I'll Have Another will likely go on to race in a few more signature events, including the Breeders' Cup, then retire to a farm in Kentucky, where breeders could pay top dollar -- more than his original purchase price -- for him to mate with select mares. A successful career as a stallion could earn Reddam, and the farm, millions.
Trainer Doug O'Neill, dogged by allegations that he has improperly medicated horses, would go down in history books as one of only a couple handful of men to have developed a Triple Crown winner, allowing him to command higher fees.
And jockey Mario Guttierez, a soft-spoken 25-year-old Mexican with a previously thin resume, would become one of the sport's most sought-after riders, with the opportunity to ride the country's top horses, and get rich himself.
But racing insiders hope for an even more significant impact, one that has less to do with money than with something they consider far more valuable: respect. Respect for a sport hemorrhaging fans. Respect for an industry widely considered unable to eliminate rogue activity. And respect for Belmont Park, which many see as under threat by forces that want to install casinos in New York's horse tracks.
"The race is much more important this year in terms of what it means for Belmont Park than it has been in a long time," said Bob Fierro, a former journalist and president of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. who now runs a horse-analysis firm called DataTrack International. "It's elegantly built, beautifully landscaped, a period piece and landmark that has been treated like crap for so many years because politicians have failed to recognize how valuable the income is from racing, and how important it is to the local economy.
"So, it would do the old girl good to have a Triple Crown winner. It would cement its reputation as an iconic monument to the sport in this country."
Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. understands the significance of a Triple Crown as well as anyone. He won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness twice and the Belmont once, but never all in the same year. "The last time it happened was 1978, so we've been waiting a long time for it," he said. "People didn't think it could happen anymore."
If I'll Have Another wins Saturday, Cordero said, "it will have a big impact on everything for racing. This year has been very tough, so it would be a good boost for ratings, it will attract people to the game and show people the good side of our sport. Lately they're only seeing the bad part."
Just take the last few weeks. In early buildup for the Belmont, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he was taking control of the scandal-plagued state racing association. Then the California Horse Racing Board suspended O'Neill 45 days after finding evidence that he'd administered improper medication to a horse in 2010. Not long after, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board imposed extraordinary new measures designed to keep the Belmont Stakes horses free of illicit drugs. In an interview with NBC's Bob Costas, O'Neill called it "a good move," and said I'll Have Another was clean, "a natural champ."
On Monday, Cuomo announced a bid to attract developers for a new convention center and casino, with Belmont as on of the possible sites, a prospect that ticked off Belmont loyalists, who fear it would cheapen the historic track.
No one's deluded enough to think that a Triple Crown would solve any of those problems. But it could divert attention. Bring in some revenue. Improve the public image. Make people root for horses again.
"There would be a great burst of excitement and celebration, and people on sports talk radio who don't normally talk about racing would talk about it," journalist Ed Bowen said. "People out there would get curious about racing and start paying more attention to it. But then that interest would decline. The Triple Crown is not going to be a panacea. But it would be a real boost to the sport. It'll have a lasting impression."
Not a bad legacy for a horse that cost $35,000.
The Belmont Stakes will air live at 5 pm EDT June 9 on NBC