By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Belmont Stakes is not called the Test of Champions for nothing. The gruelling 1-1/2 mile (2,414 meter) classic is a trial of endurance, speed and patience for man and beast alike.
While not as famous or lucrative as the Kentucky Derby, the final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown is one that ultimately separates the greats from the immortals.
Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, comprising the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont. The last was Affirmed, in 1978.
In the 34 years since, 11 more three-year-olds have gone to Belmont Park in Elmont, a suburb of Long Island, New York, with the scent of glory in their nostrils, only to trip up at the last hurdle.
But hope burns eternal and on Saturday I'll Have Another, a flashy chestnut colt trained in California, gets his shot at joining the pantheon of racing legends.
The excitement is building. In a sport where the rich and famous own the best horses while the poor have to be content just to bet on them, the prospect of an overdue Triple Crown winner has everyone in a lather.
Horse racing struggles for mainstream recognition in America with attendance and betting figures in decline. But a massive crowd of around 120,000 is expected to flock to the track to see the race live while millions more will watch on television.
I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez have been feted like rock stars in the Big Apple, tossing the ceremonial first pitch at Major League Baseball games and posing for photos atop an Empire State Building which was lit up in the purple and white colors of the horse's silks.
The bookmakers have installed I'll Have Another as the odds-on favorite after he stormed home to win the first two legs, mowing down Bodemeister in the shadows of the post both times, but the jury is out on whether he will triumph at Belmont.
Bodemeister is not entered in the Belmont but his absence has not made I'll Have Another's task any easier.
While Secretariat beat just four rivals to win the 1973 Triple Crown, ending a 25-year-drought, I'll Have Another has 11 opponents to contend with.
What makes the Triple Crown so difficult to win is the makeup and timing of the three races. They are each held in different states, over different distances, during a span of five weeks. And the winner invariably faces different opposition each time.
I'll Have Another's main rivals are all fresher than him.
Dullahan, who flashed home to finish third in the Kentucky Derby, skipped the Preakness to conserve energy for the lung-bursting Belmont. So too did Union Rags, the second favorite for the Derby, whose chances were ruined when he got caught in heavy traffic. Bodemeister's stablemate Paynter is also entered after missing both previous legs.
Dale Romans, the trainer of Dullahan, knows all too well the enormous value a Triple Crown winner would be to his sport, but he still said he intends to win the race with his own horse and spoil the party.
"I'd like to have 120,000 people booing me on the way out," he said. "This is a sport and we owe it to the past Triple Crown winners to make him earn it."
While O'Neill is one of California's most successful trainers with dozens of state titles, he had never before won any leg of the Triple Crown, and has followed an unconventional path with I'll Have Another.
Canadian businessman J. Paul Reddam bought the colt as a two-year-old for just $35,000, a bargain price in a sport where horses trade hands of millions of dollars.
He took an instant liking to the horse but decided to roll the dice and stick a relatively unknown jockey on him, Mexican rider Gutierrez, who had come to the United States hoping for a big break after years on the Canadian provincial circuit.
When I'll Have Another impressively won his first race this season with Gutierrez in the saddle, O'Neill decided to aim high, so resisted the temptation to chase quick money and sent the horse for a four-month break, knowing that he would need every ounce of energy to have any chance of achieving racing's ultimate goal.
"This is the big stage and the whole enchilada," he said. "This is what we are all dreaming about."