I'll Have Another arrives at Belmont Park
Since Affirmed became the 11th thoroughbred to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978, 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before coming up short in the 1½-mile “Test of the Champion.” I’ll Have Another earned his chance Saturday with a thrilling rally that overtook pacesetter Bodemeister three strides from the finish line.
Owner Paul Reddam endured extreme stress that led to unmatched joy. “Well,” he said Sunday morning, “at least I know my heart is good for a couple more years.”
Just as he did in the Derby, Bodemeister led from the start, and this time, he almost hung on.
“I never rode a horse that gave me as much as he did and still got beat,” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said.
Trainer Bob Baffert said Bodemeister won’t go to the Belmont. “We’re getting off the bus,” Baffert said, which was a relief to Doug O’Neill, I’ll Have Another’s trainer.
“Anytime you can dodge an amazing horse like that, it’s a good thing,” O’Neill said. “There will be fresh horses—Union Rags and Dullahan come to mind—but our horse came out of the race in great shape, and we’re ready to go.”
For the fourth consecutive race, 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez turned in a flawless ride on I’ll Have Another, to whom the humble Mexican gave all the credit. Reddam reflected on what O’Neill calls “the ‘it’ factor,” competitive fire that can’t be taught.
“I’ll Have Another has the intangibles,” Reddam said. “You can say what you want about numbers and all that other stuff, but he has the will to win. That’s what people miss when they analyze races, the intangibles. He knows what he has to do, and he has the heart of a champion.”
Besides Derby also-rans Union Rags, Dullahan and Alpha, the Belmont field is likely to include Paynter, easy winner of an allowance race Saturday at Pimlico, and Optimizer, sixth in the Preakness. The New York Racing Association also listed Mark Valeski, Atigun, Five Sixteen, Guyana Star Dweej, Rousing Sermon, Stealcase and Street Life as possibilities.
Doug O’Neill didn’t sound concerned about the competition as long as his new superstar stays sound and healthy.
“To do what he’s done the past few weeks, to see how he came out the morning after the Preakness and cleaned up his feed tub, that gives me confidence,” he said. “And I think Mario has shown his coolness in the first two legs. I think we have a good pilot for this scenario.”
I’ll Have Another cost only $11,000 as a yearling, and he went for a relatively cheap $35,000 when Dennis O’Neill picked him out of a 2-year-olds in training sale in April 2011 in Ocala, Fla. “The underbidder, I can’t remember who he was, came up to me right away and said, ‘I’ll give you $60,000 for him,’“ Dennis O’Neill said. “I called up Paul and said, ‘Want to make a quick $25,000?’ Paul said, ‘It’s up to you. Go ahead if you want.’ Any other owner would have sold him there and we wouldn’t be in this position.”
As baseball general managers always say, sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make.