When I'll Have Another attempts to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history June 9 in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), he will be bucking more than the 34-year gap since the last one.
None of the previous horses with a chance to join the select group have had to deal with the sort of scrutiny or opposition that I'll Have Another has so far endured.
The media circus, of course, was to be expected as racing closes in on a possible date with destiny. Hundreds of reporters and photographers have been on the Belmont Park grounds in the week leading up to the race. The anticipation only seems to intensify with each failed attempt to follow Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner, into the record book. Trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez at times appear to be under seige and I'll Have Another must surely wonder what all the commotion is about.
O'Neill, friendly and accomodating with reporters, seems to be taking things in stride. But what about the 25-year-old Gutierrez, a native of Mexico who has never experienced anything close to this sort of fish bowl? One cannot help but think of Ron Franklin, the young jockey whose ride aboard Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont was blamed for costing the sleek gray the Triple Crown.
“I can’t tell you the amount of pressure that’s on a young jockey or even an experienced jockey," said Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens, who will be part of NBC's broadcast crew. "And with Mario being 25 years old and the success he’s had at the many different racetracks he’s competed at in a brief career, I have all the confidence in the world that he can pull it off--if everything goes right.”
New York racing officials have also weighed in. First they banned O'Neill's use of a nasal strip to assist I'll Have Another's breathing, authorities saying they couldn't properly monitor the piece of equipment.
Then, as New York media pressed in on O'Neill's past infractions for medication miscues in California, for the first time they established a stakes barn for all the contestants in the 144th renewal of the Belmont Stakes. I'll Have Another, like the rest, was moved June 6 from the surroundings he had grown accustomed to since arriving at Belmont the day after winning the May 19 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) into a new environment surrounded by strangers. Security for everything has been maximized.
O'Neill has attempted to shrug it off, saying he doesn't feel singled out by the detention barn. But none of the trainers in this year's race seem very happy with the new wrinkle, several saying it was poorly conceived and executed.
I'll Have Another will tackle 11 opponents in the Belmont, the largest number that any Triple Crown winner has had to face.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas noted that none of Calumet Farm's Triple Crown champions had to beat as many horses as I'll Have Another in the Belmont, and the same was true for Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. If I'll have Another wins the Triple Crown, he will have beaten 40 rivals in the three races, a record number.
And then there are the historical precedents. No horse based in California as a 2-year-old has won the Triple Crown. No Mexican jockey is among the winning riders. And I'll Have Another's connections, from the O'Neill team to owners Paul Reddam and wife Zillah, have ever had anything close to this experience.
I'll Have Another is also the odds-on morning line pick for the Belmont. In seven prior races, the usually overlooked chestnut son of Flower Alley has never been favored even though he has won five times.
"There are no shortage of obstacles facing I'll Have Another," said NBC commentator Randy Moss. "But clearly if he holds form and he runs the race in the Belmont that we ran in the Preakness Stakes, it's his race to lose."
With so much possibly working against him in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, it's important to remember everything I'll Have Another has done right during a four-for-four 2012 season.
The $11,000 yearling that Reddam paid $35,000 for as a 2-year-old was mostly obscure during a juvenile campaign highlighted by a runner-up finish in the Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar. In his first race as a sophomore, I'll Have Another went off at odds of 43-1 in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 4, yet was able to stalk the leader and pull away in the stretch easily for a 2 3/4-length victory at Santa Anita Park.
O'Neill waited two months before giving I'll Have Another his next race, the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at nine furlongs. I'll Have Another responded with his usual stalking trip, rallying from third in the stretch to outlast a valiant Creative Cause by a nose in a terrific finish.
That set up I'll Have Another well for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 5, in which he became the first to win from the number 19 post in a field of 20 at Churchill Downs. I'll Have Another was farther back than in any of his other races this year and rallied from seventh to get up by 1 1/2 lengths over the favored Bodemeister , who ran a tremendous race in defeat.
The stage was set for their rematch in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico Racecourse two weeks later. Once more, the front-running Bodemeister was fantastic, but he wasn't good enough to stop I'll Have Another, who made up three lengths in the final furlong to win by a neck in a heart-pounding finish. I'll Have Another received a career-best 109 Beyer speed figure for the Preakness win at 1 3/16 miles.
I'll Have Another drew the 11 post for the Belmont, a spot of good fortune as far as O'Neill is concerned.
"Being in the 11 hole, we’re able to kind of see how the pace sets up," he said. "If they’re crawling, we’ll hopefully be leading the crawl, and if they’re flying, we’ll be sitting in behind the horses flying.”
Bodemeister will relinquish his role as Alydar in this year's Triple Crown drama. In the Belmont, owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert will instead enter Paynter, who ran fouth in the Santa Anita Derby in just his second start. Paynter, a son of Awesome Again , romped to an allowance victory while recording a 106 Beyer going 1 1/16 miles in his most recent start at Pimlico on the Preakness supporting card.
Baffert, of course, is an expert on Triple Crown near-misses. Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002) all won the first two jewels but came up short in the Belmont. His only win in the Belmont came in 2001 with Point Given . The lightly raced Paynter, 8-1 on the morning line after drawing post 9, has won two of four starts.
Two colts that skipped the Preakness after trying I'll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby--Dullahan and Union Rags --are given the best shot at upsetting I'll Have Another. Donegal Racing's Dullahan, whose trainer Dale Romans is relishing the possibility of being the spoiler this week, is 5-1 on the morning line. Chadds Ford Stable's homebred Union Rags, who vied for favoritism in the Derby before going off as the second choice, is 6-1.
Both Dullahan and Union Rags were compromised by poor starts in the Kentucky Derby.
Dullahan broke inward and was bumped and spent the race parked wide while racing mid-pack to the far turn. The son of Even the Score rallied in the homestretch, making up more than five lengths on I'll Have Another, while settling for third, beaten by 1 3/4 lengths. The chestnut comes up to the race refreshed and ready as attested by his half-mile breeze in :45 4/5 at Belmont June 3, fastest of 66 workouts at the distance that day.
Javier Castellano has the mount for the first time on the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner, replacing Kent Desormeaux. They will break from post 5.
Union Rags attempts to rebound from a seventh-place effort in the Kentucky Derby. He was 18th after being squeezed and forced to take up at the start and only found his best stride after it was far too late. He wound up beaten by 7 1/2 lengths. The bay son of Dixie Union won the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at 2 and the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (gr. II) in February, but also had trouble in the Florida Derby (gr. I) while finishing third.
Trainer Michael Matz brought Union Rags to Belmont from his training center at Fair Hill June 6, the last of the contenders to arrive on the grounds. John Velazquez will ride Union Rags for the first time, replacing Julien Leparoux. They drew post 3.
"I think the horse with the best chance to beat I'll Have Another would be Union Rags," Moss said. "(He's) a horse that's definitely been an underachiever in his last couple of races, but the way he trains, the way he looks, he still obviously has the feeling that there's a lot more there that we just simply haven't seen yet this year from Union Rags. And Paynter... if he were able to control the pace with a very comfortable early lead in relatively leisurely fractions, which you'd have to think would be at least a possibility, then he could prove to be very troublesome as well."
Street Life (12-1), trained by Chad Brown for Magnolia Racing Stable and Hidden Brook Far, steps up off a strong-closing third in the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) over the Belmont strip May 12. The son of Street Sense rallied from last in the Peter Pan. He was previously sixth in the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) at Aqueduct April 7.
The venerable Lukas, a four-time winner of the Belmont Stakes, seeks his first victory in the race since Commendable in 2000 with Optimizer (20-1). The son of English Channel , with 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy on his dam side, joins I'll Have Another as the only horse to race in all three Triple Crown events this year. Blue Grass Hall's entrant ran 11th in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness and figures to be making up ground late.
Also at 20-1 is My Adonis, a Kentucky Derby candidate that was on the also-eligible list for trainer Kelly Breen following a seventh in the Wood but did not draw into the race. George and Lori Hall's Pleasantly Perfect colt has had one start since the Wood, finishing a close third at 3-10 odds in the Canonero II Stakes at Pimlico May 5. Breen and the Halls won last year's Belmont with Ruler On Ice.
Shortleaf Stable's Atigun won an allowance/optional claiming event in the first race on the Kentucky Derby undercard in his most recent start May 5.
Unstoppable U, racing for Magdalena Racing and Mojallali Stables, is unbeaten in two starts and makes his stakes debut.
$1 Million Belmont Stakes (gr. I, Race 11, 6:40 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/2 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Trainer, ML
1. Street Life, Jose Lezcano, Chad Brown, 12-1
2. Unstoppable U, Junior Alvarado, Ken McPeek, 30-1
3. Union Rags, John Velazquez, Michael Matz, 6-1
4. Atigun, Julien Leparoux, Ken McPeek, 30-1
5. Dullahan, Javier Castellano, Dale Romans, 5-1
6. Ravelo's Boy, Alex Solis, Manuel Azpurua, 50-1
7. Five Sixteen, Rosie Napravnik, Dominick Schettino, 50-1
8. Guyana Star Dweej, Kent Desormeaux, Doodnauth Shivmangal, 50-1
9. Paynter, Mike Smith, Bob Baffert, 8-1
10. Optimizer, Corey Nakatani, D. Wayne Lukas, 20-1
11. I'll Have Another, Mario Gutierrez, Doug O'Neill, 4-5
12. My Adonis, Ramon Dominguez, Kelly Breen, 20-1
All carry 126 pounds.