05/30/2012 12:22PM

Hovdey: How would world react to a Triple Crown winner?

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Barbara D. Livingston
I'll Have Another will take his shot at the Triple Crown on June 9.

Of all the thorny questions dividing the nation -- Obama or Romney, Phillip or Jessica, one-piece or two – nothing seems to stir the emotions quite like the rampant speculation over the potential impact of what could be the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.

Alicia Wincze Hughes of the Lexington Herald Leader warns against assuming that a Triple Crown winner will solve racing’s ills, but does hold out the hope that, “Should I’ll Have Another take the Triple Crown and remain in training for the months ahead, the sport could have a marketing dynamo on its hands.”

Paul Moran, a winner of two Eclipse Awards, makes the case that the anticipation of a possible Triple Crown winner is the real rush.“The streak of failure has become more interesting than a single success,” Moran writes on ESPN’s horse racing site. “It has a life of its own and it may be eternal.”

Of course, 33 years is not an eternity. It only feels that way. And believe it or not there are tougher Triple Crowns to win, but not many. The list would include the English racing version (Nijinsky was the last colt to do it, in 1970) and Major League Baseball (the last was Carl Yastrzemski, who led the American League in average, home runs, and RBIs in 1967). Parallel parking an aircraft carrier would seem to be an easier task, and yet we live in hope.

[ANDREW BEYER: Triple Crown bid a race against history]

So count this reporter among the starry-eyed legions who would love to see a Triple Crown winner, although perhaps not for the same reasons.

It is not that a Triple Crown winner could be a shot in the arm for an often struggling sport. Horse racing’s Ship of Overnight Remedies sailed a long time ago.

It is not because racing fans everywhere deserve a Triple Crown winner after being deprived of the experience for so long, like well-behaved hostages who have earned a square meal. As William Munny growled to Little Bill at the end of “Unforgiven,” just before he put a bullet in Bill’s head: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

And it’s not that I would like to see one more Triple Crown winner in my lifetime, since I like to think I’m relatively healthy and could have a few more chances, although the cholesterol number does need some work.

No, I would love for a horse – yes, this horse – to win the Triple Crown for a very mischievous reason. Quite simply, I am curious to see what happens if he does, because at this point the reaction will be totally unpredictable, and after so many years of a Triple Crown almost but not quite happening, the happening would be far more interesting than another cold shower after another agonizing tease.

In winning, I’ll Have Another would instantly overlay a dusty relic from the distant past over a modern age so different from 1978 as to be laughable. As Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated tweeted recently, “1st Triple Crown try in blown-up Twitter era.”

That ain’t all, folks. There are precious few things lingering in 2012 that were around in the late 1970s, and not just hairlines and first marriages.

Dependency on foreign oil – okay there’s a tradition America clings to. And a preoccupation with celebrity misbehaviors. But back then, a man walking down 5th Avenue talking aloud and gesturing with his free hand was probably wearing a tinfoil hat. Now it’s a Bluetooth earpiece. And the closest thing to social media was talk radio, or screaming out a window.

There were computers in 1978, big old clunky things like suitcases that went grrrr-thonk-twee when you fired them up and chucka-chucka-chucka when you hit the keys. They kept their counsel and stored surprisingly little. But they were obviously the future, and the future was bright with pirated music.

A recent ramble through the sporting press of 1978 provided a reminder that were it not for the presence of 18-year-old Steve Cauthen among Affirmed’s cast of characters, the Triple Crown would have been treated as nothing more than that week’s horse story. Attention spans were longer then. Hearts were still pounding from Secretariat’s Triple Crown in 1973. And wasn’t there a Triple Crown winner just the year before? Named Seattle something?

I was encouraged, though, to believe there was an ongoing appreciation for Affirmed’s achievement -- particularly for all things Cauthen – after flipping through a local library’s bound volume of Time magazines from 1978. Arriving at the issue dated May 29, which according to the table of contents contained a recap of the Preakness and a cover story on Cauthen himself, I discovered that both the cover and the pages containing the Cauthen-Preakness piece had been neatly razored from the magazine.

Whoever sought the souvenir was not interested in the Clint Eastwood-Burt Reynolds cover from an earlier 1978 issue, or other ’78 Time covers featuring the images of such important world leaders as Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, the Shah of Iran, and Warren Beatty (“Mister Hollywood”). They wanted Stevie, as captured on the brink of Affirmed’s Triple Crown, and they got him.

By 21st century standards the slate is clean as far as behaviors and reactions to a horse actually winning this Triple Crown thing. If I’ll Have Another is the one, will trainer Doug O’Neill get his own reality show? Will jockey Mario Gutierrez syndicate his smile? Will Paul Reddam, the owner of the hour, float gently back to earth?

“No matter how good the horse looks going into the race, the last 11 times this situation has presented itself, he’s lost,” a realistic Reddam said this week. “So I’ve tried not to think too much about what’s actually going to happen.

“But tell me,” Reddam added, “who do you think is the biggest threat in the race?”

History, pal. History. And he’s got a huge head start.