You can choose the term or phrase of your liking to describe what I’ll Have Another, the winner of the Kentucky Derby did at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course last Saturday.
I’ve been through a few of them myself while pondering the stretch run in the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown. But I’ve have settled on a simple “Wow!” as the one that works best for me.
The Preakness appeared to set-up perfectly for Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister, a horse whose reputation has managed to grow in each of his last three starts – two of them losses. He had set a withering pace in the Derby and held on until I’ll Have Another, the beneficiary of a perfect, trouble-free journey behind some of the fastest early fractions in the great race’s 138-year history, rushed past the front-runner in the final yards.
With no other serious speed horses in the Preakness, Bodemeister figured to gallop out to an easy lead in fractions must softer than those he established on Derby Day. There’s nothing more dangerous in Thoroughbred racing than a fast horse on an uncontested lead, a situation in which that leader can save energy that would have been expended had another quick horse or two been there to look him in the eye.
The Bob Baffert-trained Bodemeister figured to relax on a comfortable lead and spurt clear under jockey Mike Smith in upper stretch, just as he had done at the Derby. But this time, he would hang on.
It worked perfectly, except the last part.
That thinking of many – including the writer in this corner – felt I’ll Have Another would need to keep Bodemeister in his sites from very close range. He would likely have to move a bit early to engage the horse he had beaten at Churchill Downs and might weaken late in Baltimore.
Instead, I’ll Have Another and rookie Triple Crown rider Mario Gutierrez settled in fourth, four lengths off of Bodemeister’s uncontested lead. Many jockeys would have pushed the panic button and sent the Derby winner after that rival much earlier, but Gutierrez displayed uncommon patience and didn’t ask the Derby winner for his best until midway around the far turn. I’ll Have Another still trailed Bodemeister by three lengths with an eighth of a mile to run before his sudden surge in the final yards enabled him to collar the leader just before the wire, nearly shredding the vocal chords of NBC announcer Larry Collmus and leaving the Thoroughbred racing nation within reach of the ever-so-elusive Triple Crown.
The last horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the 1 ½-mile final jewel of the Triple Crown, was Affirmed in 1978. His feat was the third Triple Crown in six years and followed tour de force performances by Secretariat in 1973 and Seattle Slew, the only unbeaten Triple Crown winner, in 1977. The Triple Crown, during that dizzying stretch, seemed on the verge of becoming routine.
But it should have been a sign of things to come that Spectacular Bid, one of the great horses of the 20th century, won the first two jewels before fading in the stretch in the Belmont Stakes. The Bid’s failure was the starting point of a Triple Crown drought that now covers 34 years. The previous record dry spell had been the gap of 25 years between the Crown won by the great Calumet Farm star Citation in 1948 and Secretariat’s now-mythic ’73.
Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, and since Affirmed held off arch-rival Alydar to win the Belmont and complete his ’78 sweep, 11 horses have won the Derby and the Preakness only to falter in the Belmont.
The story of I’ll Have Another gets more intriguing with each year. A bargain purchase for just $35,000 at a 2-year-old sale in Ocala, Fla. in April of 2011, I’ll Have Another has run seven times in his career and has not been favored in any of those races. Each of the previous 11 Triple Crown winners had been the favorite in either the Derby or Preakness – or both – prior to their Belmont wins.
His record now stands at 5-1-0 in seven races and he is perfect in four starts as a 3-year-old. If you’re concerned about the 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes, I’ll Have Another’s pedigree is dotted with long-winded distance stars such as Ribot, Sea-Bird, Sadler’s Wells, Princequillo, Vaguely Noble, Roberto and His Majesty.
He also carries the blood of Native Dancer, who was denied a Triple Crown when he suffered his only career loss in the Kentucky Derby, where he lost by a nose to Dark Star. But on the other side of his pedigree coin is Nijinsky, winner of England’s Triple Crown in 1973 and the only horse since 1935 to accomplish that sweep which includes 1 ½-mile Epsom Derby and the St. Leger at approximately a mile and three-quarters,
Although its distance is a quarter-mile longer than the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes often favors horses with early speed, and the stalking style employed by I’ll Have Another would seem to be ideal for the race. Despite his relative inexperience, Gutierrez rode Paul Reddam’s Derby winner perfectly in both the Derby and Preakness. Perhaps Gutierrez is too green to be scared, but it’s working.
Trainer Doug O’Neill has done a terrific job of bringing a fresh horse to the Triple Crown. The break of more than two months between I’ll Have Another’s 2012 debut in Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis and his victory in the Santa Anita Derby looks, in retrospect, like a masterstroke.
So now, we wait to see how history will treat I’ll Have Another in his bid for the Belmont Stakes on June 9. If you’re looking for good Triple Crown omens, that’s the same date of the Saturday on which Secretariat scored his record-shattering 31-length romp in the Belmont Stakes that made him a national hero and put the legendary “Big Red” on the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Some tough rivals await at Belmont Park, with Kentucky Derby foes Dullahan (3rd) and Union Rags (a troubled 7th) appearing as the primary dangers. Paynter, a talented late-bloomer with dangerous front-running speed, will likely carry Baffert’s hopes of avenging I’ll Have Another’s wins over Bodemeister, could also show up.
It won’t be easy to complete the Triple Crown sweep, but nothing worth having should be. But I’ll Have Another has the running style and the pedigree to get the job done, and the improving Derby winner is coming off a performance in the Preakness that is the best of his life.
He’ll finally be the betting favorite for the first time in what has turned out to already be a remarkable racing career. We’ll see how I’ll Have Another responds to that challenge on June 9.
He’s handled almost everything else.
Photos by AMBER CHALFIN | Contributing Photographer