The three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes (both gr. I) are without a doubt the most stressful time for the owners of a horse going for the Triple Crown. While Steve Coburn handled the press conference after this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), his partner in California Chrome, Perry Martin, dropped out of sight and skipped going to the Preakness altogether.
Wave after wave of reporters call, all wanting to hear their story. But what is it like being on the other end of those calls and conversations?
Mike Iavarone and Paul Reddam know. They are the two most recent owners to come to Belmont Park with a shot at winning the Triple Crown, and it's not all fun and games.
"You can't be prepared for the rush of attention that comes right after the Preakness," said Reddam, who campaigned I'll Have Another to victories in the Derby and Preakness two years ago. "It becomes hard to handle, and you reach a point where you want to get to the (Belmont) already. In our case it was weird because people didn't understand this was a good horse until after the Preakness. After the Derby they thought Bodemeister was the best horse and should have won. All of a sudden after the Preakness they saw I'll Have Another as a tremendous champion."
Mike Iavarone, co-president and co-CEO of International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stables (IEAH), also found a double-edged sword awaiting him as Big Brown proceeded through the Triple Crown season of 2008 having won the first two jewels.
"We had won a Breeders' Cup in 2007 (with Kip Deville) and I thought it couldn't get any better," he said. "Then Big Brown won those races and it transcended the horse racing world and got out into the general media, and you realize the scope and the difference of the situation. Part of it is a very exciting and wonderful experience. But with it comes a lot of aggravation, in our case from journalists outside racing who wanted to beat up the game at a time when it had a chance to achieve great things. That took some of the enthusiasm from it."
Big Brown was trained by the mercurial Rick Dutrow Jr., now serving a 10-year suspension for various violations, who admitted that Big Brown ran under the influence of (at the time legal) steroids. Doug O'Neill, the trainer of I'll Have Another, also has had his brushes with racing regulators, and both brought out the cynics and critics.
"Everybody remembers the 11 horses who have won the Triple Crown; I can't name more than a couple of their owners," Iavarone said. "It's much more about the horse than about the owners or connections. It's his legacy. I've read quotes about how people were high-fiving when Big Brown lost, and it turns my stomach. That Triple Crown try wasn't about me or Dutrow; it's about the horse. That's what people should care about."
Reddam recalled how people began treating him differently as the Triple Crown proceeded.
"After the Derby people starting asking for my autograph, and I thought they were nuts," he said. "After the Preakness that became routine. People treat you like a celebrity, which you aren't. It's very humorous and surreal. I was told we needed bodyguards; that I needed people to watch our house when we traveled to New York. I started to understand celebrities a little more. People come up to you like they know you and start chattering and it's weird.
"For the most part I tried to block going for the Triple Crown out of my mind. I didn't want to think about what it would be like if he won, or if he lost. I tried to carry on routinely as best as possible and that really helped when we ultimately had to scratch the horse. I didn't have a mental collapse."
Iavarone and his team were battling against quarter cracks that plagued Big Brown leading up to the Belmont.
"That kind of situation happens with so many horses before most races," said Iavarone. "It was never a situation where we said we were going to load him in the gate no matter what. We followed the specialists' advice and made sure every step was the right one. Nobody thought his foot was going to cost us the race when he loaded. To this day we don't know why he ran so poorly in the Belmont. Every time they're out there, something can go wrong.
"The thing about racing, though, is everyone wants to voice an opinion, and the biggest critics are people that haven't owned a horse in their lives. 'A horse runs too much; he doesn't run enough.' You can't win."
Perhaps Coburn and Martin will have a far different experience and successfully cap off their Triple Crown pursuit June 7. Most hope the spotlight will catch them smiling and in triumph. This is likely a once-in-a-lifetime quest.
"People came up to me after the horse got hurt and said, 'Don't worry, you'll get it next time,' " Reddam said. "I'd look at them like, 'Who are you kidding?' The horse was 4/5 on the morning line to win the Triple Crown. That's never going to happen to me again."