Trainer Doug O'Neill has full confidence in the potential for I'll Have Another to handle the grueling 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) after the colt captured the first two jewels of America's Triple Crown.
“He’s got the mind,” O’Neill said at Pimlico Race Course the morning after I'll Have Another nipped Bodemeister by a neck in a thrilling renewal of the May 19 Preakness Stakes (gr. I). “You’ve seen the way he’s handled the attention in Kentucky and here in Baltimore. He’s got a great confidence about him and he’s got the stride of a horse that a mile and a half won’t be a problem. He’s got the pedigree; so much stamina on the female side."
Meanwhile, after a second agonizing loss to I’ll Have Another in the Preakness, trainer Bob Baffert said Bodemeister will remain in training but skip the Belmont.
“I’ve had enough,” Baffert quipped.
Reddam Racing's I'll Have Another, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) by 1 1/2 lengths two weeks before the Preakness, was loaded onto a van the morning of May 20 to begin his journey to Belmont Park and a date with racing history.
He arrived at Barn 9 at Belmont Park following the ride at 2:53 p.m. EDT.
“We got kind of held up for about an hour and a half,” said Jack Sisterson, assistant to O’Neill. “I have no idea where we were, but besides that the horse was happy. He was just looking out the window the whole time. He and Lava Man were together, they were just chatting away the whole time. We were at Pimlico almost two weeks and we shipped in a week before at Churchill, and now we’re here for the three weeks. So far, so good.
"It’s kind of working out for us, so we’re not going to change that. I think the sooner he gets over the track and gets familiar with the surroundings. We’ll walk him tomorrow and then take it from there. One day at a time.”
After winning the Preakness in front of a record crowd of 121,309, the chestnut son of Flower Alley is the first since Big Brown in 2008 to win the first two legs of the series. He will try to become the 12th horse to capture American racing’s most treasured prize – and the first since Affirmed in 1978 – in the Belmont June 9.
Back at Pimlico, O’Neill said the colt and his team are ready for the challenge.
“My dreams always ended with winning the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “They never were followed up with winning the Preakness and going to the Belmont. That’s a new dream now I’m waiting to pull off.”
O’Neill said that I’ll Have Another came out of the race well and was happy with his appearance when he arrived at the barn at 6 a.m. Sunday.
“He looked great,” O’Neill said. “He had licked his feed tub. Once we cleaned the poultice off, his legs were ice cold. He had good energy.”
I’ll Have Another was loaded onto a van at 9:05 a.m. for the journey to Belmont Park.
The Preakness victory pushed I’ll Have Another’s record to 4-0 this season. The Southern California-based colt joins a select group of horse to have completed the Santa Anita Derby/Kentucky Derby/Preakness triple: Majestic Prince (1969), Affirmed, and Sunday Silence (1989).
O’Neill said the colt is well-suited to handle the Belmont, the longest of the three races and called “The Test of the Champion.” In all likelihood, he won’t make any changes in I’ll Have Another’s training program during the three weeks leading up to the race.
“We’ll have to play that by ear,” he said. “It depends on the weather and all that stuff, but we’ll maintain the same type of exercise that he’s had. There’s the old line about you can’t take a sprinter and train him two miles and make a router out of him and you can’t take a router and work them three-eighths every week and make a sprinter out of him.
“If we’ve got a true route horse, which we do, he’s going to maintain his fitness and his exercise. If they can go a mile and a half they will. And he will.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill is prepared for the attention and demands on his time that will come his way between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
“Bring it on,” he said. “We’re ready.”
Several members of O’Neill’s staff went with the colt to Belmont Park. O’Neill and his family were scheduled to fly home to California on owner J. Paul Reddam’s private jet. After checking on his horses at Betfair Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Park, O’Neill said he would probably travel to New York in about a week.
O’Neill acknowledged that there were moments during the Preakness stretch duel that it looked like I’ll Have Another might not overtake Bodemeister.
“He was running such a brilliant race and even if he had run second he would have run brilliantly,” O’Neill said. “You don’t want to run second when you run that good, and I’m glad he didn’t.”
With Bodemeister defecting from the Belmont, it appears that only Preakness third-place finisher Creative Cause and sixth-place Optimizer are still under consideration. Cozzetti, who was seventh, also is a possibility.
Zayat Stables and Mike and Tiffany Moreno’s Bodemeister was flown back to California Sunday morning. Baffert said that the colt appeared to be in good condition before leaving the Pimlico stakes barn for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
“He was actually pretty happy today,” Baffert said about the son of Empire Maker. “He ate up, got on a plane, and headed back to California. He came out of it really well.”
Bodemeister set the pace in the Derby and the Preakness and each time I’ll Have Another managed to catch and pass him near the finish line. The Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner turned in gallant performances in defeat.
“He’s a pretty amazing animal,” Baffert said. “He didn’t act tired. After the race, he came back to the barn and he wasn’t as tired as he was after the Derby.”
Baffert said I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister showed in the Derby and the Preakness that they are at the top of a talented crop of 3-year-olds.
“They are two really good horses,” he said. “On any given year they could probably win those races. It was a tough year.”
Baffert said that the Zayat Stables’ colt Paynter might start in the Belmont Stakes. Paynter, who won an allowance race in convincing style Saturday at Pimlico, was shipped to Belmont Park Sunday morning.
“We’re going to train him there,” Baffert said. “If it looks like he snapped out of his race, we’ll run him in the Belmont if he looks really good.”
Trainer Mike Harrington shipped Creative Cause out for California Sunday morning, saying it's "50-50" on whether they'll ship cross-country again for the Belmont.
"He came out of the race OK,” Harrington said minutes before putting the son of Giant's Causeway on the van. “Back to California, regroup.”
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas exited Pimlico shortly after dawn with his entourage, including Optimizer, for the long van ride back to Louisville.
Lukas said before the Preakness he believed the son of English Channel was probably better suited to the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes than either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. He finished 11th in the Derby in some traffic, then got going late to split the field in the Preakness at odds of 23-1.
“I would say we’re probable for the Belmont just because of the distance and the different configuration of the race track,” said Lukas, who has won the Belmont Stakes four times in his storied career. “I’d say it’s 50-50 right now. The winner (I’ll Have Another) is a nice horse, but we’re not going to hand it (the Triple Crown) to him. He’s got to earn it.”
Trainer Dale Romans was on the fence about his next step with Cozzetti. But he also has Dullahan, who ran third in the Kentucky Derby, fresh and ready for the Belmont.
“He worked Saturday morning (five furlongs in 1:00.20, second-best of 26) at Churchill,” Romans said of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner. “He’s on track for a big Belmont.”