As the days until the June 9 Belmont Stakes dwindle quickly, the world of Thoroughbred racing and a growing number of observers and fans outside the sport are focusing on Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another and his bid to snap a 34-year string of Triple Crown frustration.
There is every reason to be excited. Every step taken by the Derby winner this year seems to have moved him forward. His running style – plenty of speed to put him in a stalking position close to the pace – seems built for the demanding Belmont Stakes distance of 1 ½ miles. And trainer Doug O’Neill is happy to handle every media request while jockey Mario Gutierrez is keeping a very low profile in an effort to keep distractions to a minimum in the days leading up to I’ll Have Another’s date with history.
Gutierrez, whose wit and smile following a Kentucky Derby victory just one year removed from watching the 2011 renewal of the Run for the Roses at British Columbia’s Hastings Park, is laser-focused on doing things the right way.
His public relations agent is Angie Athayde Stevens, and her husband, retired jockey Gary Stevens, is available to mentor Gutierrez at all times. In the days leading up to the Belmont, Gutierrez will get a guided tour of Belmont Park’s seemingly endless mile-and-a-half racing oval from former jockey Richard Migliore, who won nearly 1,400 races at the track during his three decades of riding.
O’Neill so loves the way his Derby winner is doing that he has decided the colt will not work prior to the Triple Crown’s third and final jewel. Thanks to a call he made early in the year that provided a long gap between I’ll Have Another’s 3-year-old debut in his Feb. 4 victory in the Robert B. Lewis and his final Derby prep in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby, O’Neill has a relatively fresh horse heading into the Belmont.
The trainer has done a marvelous job of having a firm grasp on what can be controlled. But it is the factors beyond one’s reach that often determine the tale’s ending, and the hottest and, possibly, most dangerous of those carries a familiar name.
That factor is Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans.
He is preparing Donegal Racing’s Dullahan, a hard-charging third in the Derby, for another shot at I’ll Have Another in the so-called “Test of the Champion.” But things are going so well for Romans right now that a Belmont win for Dullahan might be only the cherry atop the sundae.
While looking toward the Belmont over the past seven days, Romans saddled his 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford for a brilliant and dramatic win in Monday’s Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park and watched one of his most promising two-year-olds, Donegal’s Roman’s Avenue, score an emphatic victory in his May 27 career debut at Churchill Downs.
It’s difficult to imagine a Belmont Stakes result that could be any more satisfying to Romans than his Memorial Day win at Belmont. As great as the last-gasp rally by I’ll Have Another to nip the front-running Bodemeister in the Preakness clearly was, Shackleford’s determined Met Mile triumph in which he defeated the talented Caleb’s Posse by a nose would have to be a “pick ‘em” proposition if we were voting today for “Race of the Year.”
It was the first win for Romans in a race that has long been one of America’s most prestigious events, and it was delivered by the horse that provided his trainer with his first classic victory when he won last year’s Preakness. Shackleford is tough, fast and relentless. He never misses a dance and, win or lose, he’s always in the fight.
Roman’s Avenue has much to prove, but he rolled by more than four lengths in his debut and, in the first step of his career, justified Romans’ clear enthusiasm for his potential. He’s a son of Street Sense, the winner of the 2007 Kentucky Derby who, with his second crop of foals, is beginning to look like he’ll also be a star in the breeding shed.
That’s a considerable amount of momentum for Romans as he sends Dullahan into his showdown with I’ll Have Another and his colt looms as one of the biggest threats to extending America’s racing gap between Triple Crowns to at least 35 years.
Dullahan is built for the Belmont and its distance and his half-brother, longshot 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, nearly won the race during his underappreciated run through his Triple Crown series. And when one considers how well things are going in the Romans barn, that intangible makes Dullahan a more dangerous factor for the big race at Belmont Park on July 9.
For critics of American racing – and there are plenty, with some criticism justified and some more than a bit shaky – I would suggest this. Take a look at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Met Mile. This year’s renewals of those events is American racing at its best, and the races and their results have been as thrilling and riveting as anything offered in the world this year.
The gut feeling here is that the Belmont Stakes will offer similar drama as I’ll Have Another makes his bid to become just the 12th horse to win America’s Triple Crown. But a Triple Crown will be earned, not given away.
And a red-hot Dale Romans and Dullahan will be there to ensure that I’ll Have Another, should he win Triple Crown’s final jewel, will truly deserve to have his name mentioned with the previous 11.