Trainer Doug O'Neill took a red-eye flight from California to watch I'll Have
Another on the track at Pimlico Race Course Thursday morning and, in a matter of
minutes, his Preakness-bound colt made the overnight trip worthwhile.
I'll Have Another was led to the track by Lava Man -- a $5 million earner during his career, who is a stable pony in retirement -- and galloped smartly once around the track under exercise rider Jonny Garcia. It was the first time the Flower Alley colt was allowed to gallop since he won the Kentucky Derby early Saturday evening at Churchill Downs. O'Neill went home to California on Sunday and his staff traveled with the colt to Pimlico on Monday.
After I'll Have Another completed his exercise routine and was bathed, O'Neill said he was pleased with the colt's appearance and the way he moved on the track.
"I thought he looked fantastic," O'Neill said. "He had his caddy Arnold Palmer with him, Lava Man, and they were just like we were back home. Those two were absolutely great together, full of energy but composed.
"One of the great things about I'll Have Another is he's got such a beautiful, long stride. You saw it here today. He's maintained that on whatever surface he's on. That's what I was looking for. I just wanted to see him really stretch and he did. He looks no worse for the wear. He looks great."
I'll Have Another gallops along at such a rapid pace that he appears to be doing a timed breeze.
"Back home, there's times he gallops, he'll be going by workers, which is a little bit embarrassing for the guys working horses," O'Neill said. "He's a special colt, as you can see. His normal gallops are almost like two-minute licks. The biggest thing is, as long as you're not forcing him to do that, you're fine. If you've got to ask him to do that every day, you're going to drain a horse. If that's their natural clip, you keep them happy and they maintain good overall health. So far, so good."
O'Neill said I'll Have Another gets a lot of out his gallops and that is part of the stable's approach to prepping horses for races.
"Our thing is, always by the end of the gallop to let them put their feet where they want to put them," O'Neill said. "With the theory being that they learn to breathe like they do in a racing setting and they're less apt to take a bad step if you just let them put their feet where they want to put them, instead of fighting them and forcing them.
"Jonny is one of our top exercise riders and he's just such a brilliant hand that way. I loved what I saw this morning. That's exactly the way he was training back home. If we can make him maintain that, we should be able to maintain his afternoon form."
During the few days he was back in California, O'Neill talked with Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Alysheba.
"He gave me some suggestions of not working the colt here, just galloping, which we were planning on doing," O'Neill said. "It's nice talking to guys who have already been here and done it. There is nothing like information from a Hall of Fame horseman. I feel very good about what we plan on doing preparing him for the Preakness."
O'Neill said he wasn't bothered by reports that Derby runner-up Bodemeister might be a morning-line favorite in the 137th Preakness on May 19. I'll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez caught and passed the speedy Bob Baffert-trained colt in the final 100 yards of the Kentucky Derby.
"I can see that," O'Neill said. "Bodemeister did run a huge race and coming here, the distance is going to be shorter, I could see where the handicappers would give him an edge. The great thing about our colt is that he's got enough natural speed; Bodemeister won't get an easy lead. If he's the only speed in there, I'll Have Another just won't be that far behind him.
"Mario knows this colt great and we'll just have to have a little bit different tactics. We'll have to play it by ear, but I have all the confidence in my colt that he can bring that same race back here to Baltimore a week from Saturday."
The outgoing O'Neill runs an upbeat operation and is embracing all the opportunities that come with training a Kentucky Derby winner heading into the Preakness. Among them, he has accepted an invitation to throw out the first pitch of the Tuesday night game between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
"I'm having an absolute blast," he said. "Back home, I did the Jim Rome Show. I did all these cool interviews. I was at the Lakers game the other night and they interviewed us, Mario and I. It's been an absolute dream. Who knows if we'll ever do this again? Hopefully, we'll do this multiple times, but we're soaking it all up and enjoying every moment of it."
O'Neill arrived at Pimlico from Baltimore-Washington International Airport about 30 minutes before I'll Have Another went out to the track Thursday morning. Considering everything the colt has been through, O'Neill said he is delighted with how he is doing.
"They talk to you in their body language and he sure looked the part to me," O'Neill said. "He's recovered very quickly with his breathing. He just hasn't turned a hair. He's a horse that's always been calm and relaxed in the stall, which is the sign of a good racehorse in my mind. He knows how to turn it on and off. What we just saw there, this morning, that's what we saw every day at Hollywood Park prior to coming to Churchill. So I feel very good right now."