ESPN Horse Racing

Would War Emblem victory tarnish the Crown?
By Jeremy Plonk
Special to

The year was 1978. A big, fat sweaty guy toured the nation singing, "Now don't be sad, 'cause two out of three ain't bad." He was named for mom's leftovers, and Meatloaf had quite a following.

That year was also the last time thoroughbred racing would celebrate a Triple Crown winner. Affirmed and Alydar renewed their epic acquaintances in the '78 Belmont Stakes, as Affirmed scoffed at Meatloaf's claims and captured all three of racing's ultimate contests.

Affirmed became the sport's 11th Triple Crown winner. By now, it was old hat. After all, Seattle Slew turned the trick just one year prior. Memories of Secretariat's 1973 performance still loomed over the sport on its fifth anniversary. Attendance for the '77 Belmont was nearly 10 percent higher than the '78 attempt at a repeat crown (71,026 to 65,417). Could it possibly have been too much of a good thing?

That old hat has weathered considerably over the past 24 years. Affirmed remains the last Triple Crown winner in a sport that has seen 15 "near misses" at the Belmont. Most recently, Charismatic ('99), Real Quiet ('98) and Silver Charm ('97) embarked on Belmont only to have their Crown dreams snuffed -- each in the final strides of this grueling 1-1/2 mile race.

The tease of a Triple Crown drives this sport. For the fourth time in the past six years, a Thoroughbred gallops into Gotham with a chance to make history. People clamor. The track buzzes. Can War Emblem take his place alongside names like Citation and Whirlaway?

They'll pile along the rail in droves -- more than 80,000 strong. Surely, if War Emblem can win the Belmont, he'll be a deserving Triple Crown champion. None of the previous 11 heroes have ever defeated more than 32 rivals in the three-race series. War Emblem's list of casualties this spring would dwarf that number. He bested 17 others in the Derby and dusted a dozen pursuers in the Preakness. The field for the Belmont figures to reach double digits.

The house will rock if War Emblem can take the Triple Crown. An immediate deluge of media coverage will befall the sport. Figure to see trainer Bob Baffert on everything from The Late Show With David Letterman to Good Morning America. All hail the Triple Crown winner War Emblem -- for a fleeting moment. Then get a cringe in your gut when you read that he's heading off to the breeding shed in the coming months.

War Emblem likely will be long gone before people stop talking about him. He'll gallivant around the paddocks of Kentucky looking for mares to breed at ridiculous prices. Then we're left with "What's next?"

Will winning the Triple Crown lose its luster?

Honestly, can a record so unattainable actually be won by a horse that lost his first three stakes attempts by more than 29 combined lengths?

Can the un-doable be done by a horse with floating chips in his knees and ankles?

Just how much shine comes off the Crown when it's won by a horse that "stole" the Derby and held off the late charge of a 45-to-1 Maryland-bred longshot in the Preakness?

When unimaginable records are achieved, they become imaginable. Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961 soiled Babe Ruth's long-standing record of 60. Maris eclipsed the record in an expansion year, where pitching was said to be diluted. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both surpassed 61 in 1998, the bar suddenly seemed a bit lower. Last year, Barry Bonds stroked 73, making any delusions of grandeur about home runs past moot.

War Emblem won't make us forget Secretariat, as Bonds' stature won't test Ruth. But do you really want to say their names in the same breath?

The vast majority of the 80,000 onlookers at Belmont will be rooting for a Triple Crown hero. Just being there provides adrenaline. The millions tuned in worldwide figure to seek the same. But for some sinking reason, I won't be one of them. It's not that I don't want War Emblem to win, it's that I don't want my visions of greatness blurred. Some things are best left alone. Let there be a tease at the Triple Crown every year -- it makes the Belmont Stakes must-see TV.

When the time is right, the Triple Crown will be ripe for the picking. Let there be an undefeated 2-year-old champion streamrolling to greatness at age three. Let him be the one fitted for the crown if it must be captured from history. Let us all be familiar with his name more than 10 seconds before hitting the finish line in Kentucky.

Much has changed over the past 24 years. There now are no living Triple Crown-winning horses with the recent passage of Seattle Slew. And that Meatloaf guy has been scraped from our dishes and replaced on the charts by boy bands and Britney Spears. So, if you're along the rail after the Belmont and hear some sweaty, fat guy singing "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," feel confident it's not Meatloaf. It just might be me.