Seemingly the only question on the minds of American horse racing fans this week is some variation of, "Can American Pharoah win?"
Sure, there are also questions about the horse's connections, the schedule of races, and whether a victory would be too little, too late in terms of the sport's health in the eyes of the general public. However, all of those questions trace back to the root question of whether American Pharoah will win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
No one will know the answer until the winner crosses the wire, and although people are making their best educated guesses, history makes predicting these things rather difficult. Horses who appear destined for Triple Crown glory fail regularly. Smarty Jones, anyone?
On the other hand, some of the horses who have pulled off the Holy Grail of racing have come from very unlikely places. Looking at the history of the 11 winners of the Triple Crown, there is no rhyme or reason to how they managed to do it. There is no set formula for winning America's three classic races, and that is part of what makes it so difficult.
Secretariat is held up as the equine Adonis of American thoroughbreds, and in hindsight his victory seems obvious enough. He was already a champion, clearly talented and well-bred, and he came from a powerful racing operation.
However, when he won the Triple Crown in 1973, he was the first horse to do so in 25 years. No horse had accomplished the feat since the mighty Citation in 1948.
There were doubts back then, too, about whether we would ever see another Triple Crown, no matter how impressive Secretariat was in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Of course, fans remained ever-hopeful, and 5,617 winning pari-mutuel tickets on Secretariat in the Belmont were never redeemed.
It didn't take long for the quintessential rags-to-riches story to come along after that. Seattle Slew was undefeated when he won the Triple Crown in 1977, but when he was a youngster, he wasn't quite as popular.
Karen Taylor, a former flight attendant, and her husband, Mickey Taylor, a lumberman, bought the colt as a yearling for $17,500 based on the recommendation of their friend, Dr. Jim Hill, and they raced him together.
Seattle Slew not only won the Triple Crown but also went on to an incredibly successful career as a stallion.
Then there were horses like Assault, whose story sounds more like fiction than truth. He won the Triple Crown in 1946, and to this day is one of only two Texas-bred horses to win the Kentucky Derby.
Before even running a race, though, Assault stepped on what is believed to have been a surveyor's stake and drove it through his right front hoof. He became permanently deformed and was called the "Clubfooted Comet."
Throughout his life, the luckless horse also had a bad kidney, splints, a wrenched fetlock and an injured knee. He was also a bleeder and proved to be sterile at stud.
A lot has been made about American Pharoah's tail, or rather his lack thereof, and the fact that he wears earmuffs while racing to cut down on crowd noise. If he wins Saturday, he wouldn't be the only Triple Crown hero to have his temperament or tail be part of his tale.
The 1941 winner, Whirlaway, was known as Mr. Longtail due to having an overly luxurious tail. He was also a quirky beast and notoriously difficult to ride. Because Whirlaway would go so wide on turns, his trainer, Ben Jones, fitted him with specialty blinkers ahead of the Kentucky Derby. It worked.
The structure of the Triple Crown races has not changed since three horses completed the sweep in the 1970s. So what has changed in the sport that seems to make the feat impossible today?
How can the re-emergence of a Triple Crown winner impact a sport in dire need of a charismatic hero?
The first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, had never won a race before he took the 1919 Kentucky Derby. He was entered as a pacesetter for his stablemate, Billy Kelly, but missed the memo and was victorious. He is now part of history, even if accidentally.