American racing bets the ranch on a colt's Triple Crown fairy tale

A sport said to be on its last legs in the US is desperate for I'll Have Another to do the treble tomorrow

New York

He was bought in 2011 for a paltry $35,000 (£22,000), at a two-year-olds-in-training sale in Florida, by an owner who has been haughtily dismissed as a loan shark. His name reflects no eminent breeding bloodline, merely that same owner's predilection for cookies (or biscuits, as they are known on the other side of the pond).

But these last few weeks, that accidental background has faded into irrelevance. I'll Have Another stands just one victory away from the Triple Crown, the ultimate prize of American racing and perhaps the toughest challenge in all American sport, whether human or animal.

Oh yes, and if that's not enough, the colt's success, in the view of some doom-mongers at least, also represents the last, best chance of saving a fading and discredited sport from oblivion.

I'll Have Another's moment of truth comes tomorrow on the dirt at Belmont racetrack on Long Island, some 10 miles east of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. There, shortly after 6.30pm local time (11.30pm BST) and watched by more than 100,000 spectators, he will attempt to add the Belmont Stakes to the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes to become just the 11th horse to secure the Triple Crown.

Not only the racing industry and newspaper headline writers, but also people who have never gone near a track in their lives yearn for the feat to be accomplished. The 1970s produced three, the last of them by Affirmed in 1978. Since then nothing. It has been the longest Triple Crown drought ever, and with each barren year that passes, the ache only grows.

Since Affirmed, 11 horses have flirted with immortality by winning the first two legs, only to fail at Belmont. Four of the near-misses have come in the last decade alone. Now only one question matters. Can I'll Have Another succeed where War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004 and Big Brown in 2008 all failed?

J Paul Reddam is a Canadian of many parts, who acquired a PhD in philosophy at the University of Southern California before moving into the more lucrative business of high-interest short- term lending to people who needed money fast, few questions asked – leading Jerry Brown, the state's governor, to liken him to a loan shark. Ever since boyhood in Windsor, Ontario, however, Reddam has had an interest in horses. And right now his single most precious asset is that horse he picked up last year in Ocala, Florida, almost as an afterthought.

I'll Have Another's two-year-old season was nothing to write home about, a debut victory followed by two defeats. But 2012 has been another story. In February, he won the Robert B Lewis Stakes in California as a 40-1 outsider, before prevailing over the favourite Creative Cause to win the west coast's blue-riband race, the Santa Anita Derby, in April. The east coast classics beckoned, but few could predict the fireworks to come.

The colt started the Kentucky Derby at the unflattering odds of 15-1, carrying Mario Gutierrez, a 25-year-old Mexican who had never ridden in a Triple Crown race. But at Churchill Downs both horse and jockey proved their mettle in the most convincing fashion imaginable, coming from behind and from an unfavourably wide starting stall to overhaul the favourite Bodemeister and win by a length and a half.

The raw Gutierrez was judged by his peers to have ridden the perfect race. He passed on the compliment to I'll Have Another – "an amazing horse, from the first time I met him I knew he was the one". The Preakness would bear out that tribute. Again Bodemeister was favourite, again Gutierrez and I'll Have Another reeled him in, this time in the final strides, to win by a neck.

But the fairy tale that is about to reach its climax is not without shadows. Racing in the US has been going through bad times. Track attendances and betting turnover are in decline and, all too often, the headlines generated by the sport are for the wrong reasons.

Twice recently, Triple Crown races have been marred by tragedy. In 2006, the hugely popular Barbaro, having won the Kentucky Derby, broke his leg at the Preakness and after a seven- month medical struggle that transfixed a nation, had to be euthanised. Then in 2008, the filly Eight Belles collapsed immediately after finishing second to Big Brown at the Derby, and had to be destroyed on the course.

An outcry followed. Horses were being excessively bred for speed, it was said, making inevitable such accidents, for which an industry that put money above everything was directly responsible. Then there is the related matter of drugs. Horses, many have charged, are routinely pumped up with quasi-legal and dangerous medications. Among those so accused has been I'll Have Another's trainer Doug O'Neill, who was suspended only last week for 45 days (starting after the Belmont) by the California racing authorities for alleged violations.

O'Neill is adamant he has done nothing wrong. But the great and good of the sport are unhappy. It was "regrettable" that Reddam had kept the trainer on, declared Penny Chenery, the 90-year-old owner of the late but never-to-be-forgotten Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown, whose 31-length victory at Belmont is legendary.

Now, I'll Have Another has a chance to emulate Secretariat's glory. Can he do it? Even though Reddam's colt has been installed as an odds-on 4-5 favourite, it is a huge ask. The Triple Crown unfolds over three races crammed into five weeks, culminating in the Belmont's 12 furlongs – more than its participants have ever run before and will ever run again.

Clearly he is the best horse in the race, but others, notably Dullahan, rated the 5-1 second-favourite, will be much fresher. Reddam himself has few illusions. "I want to maintain low expectations," he said this week. "I know in a horse race, a lot of things can go wrong, so I'm just hoping that they all go right one more time."

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