On the first Saturday of February, I'll Have Another was not on any list of Kentucky Derby contenders. On the second Saturday of June, I'll Have Another will be going for the elusive Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby winner needed just about every yard of the Pimlico stretch Saturday to run down Bodemeister and win the Preakness by a neck. It was nearly 9 lengths back to the third horse, Creative Cause, as the top two staged a near copy of their Derby stretch duel.
The Preakness, at a mile and three sixteenths, is 110 yards shorter than the Derby. At that point of the Derby, Bodemeister was in front by a neck. This time, it was the other way.
The fractions were very fast on a very fast surface at Churchill Downs. They were moderate at Pimlico on a surface that was not especially fast. The result was the same.
It really looked like Bodemeister's race. The colt controlled the pace and it really looked like he had control of the race. I'll Have Another's owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill were wondering why jockey Mario Gutierrez was waiting so long to go.
The jockey, a complete unknown at the top levels of the sport, obviously knows something. Bodemeister led by 3 lengths at the eighth pole, just 220 yards from the finish line. One stride at a time, I'll Have Another cut into the lead. Would the wire come before I'll Have Another finally caught up?
"It wasn't until about 20 yards from the wire that I thought he was going to win," Reddam said.
Get there he did. The colt was 43-1 when he won the Robert Lewis on Feb. 4, 4-1 when he won the Santa Anita Derby, 15-1 when he won the Kentucky Derby and the 3-1 second-choice in the Preakness. He has never been favored in any of his seven races. That figures to change in the June 9 Belmont Stakes.
I'll Have Another ran the Preakness distance in 1:55.94, a terrific time over a track that was not yielding fast times. Bodemeister, favored at 8-5, actually ran back to his dominating
Arkansas Derby win. And I'll Have Another ran him down anyway.
"I just can't put it into words," said O'Neill who won the Preakness with his first starter in the race. "It's just incredible."
I'll Have Another went from a horse that benefited from a dream trip in the Derby to an entirely different level in the Preakness. Bodemeister had everything his way and I'll Have Another caught him again.
"I wasn't sure we would get there, but I knew I had a horse with a lot of fight and a lot of heart," Reddam said.
I'll Have Another is now 4-for-4 in 2012. If he gets to 5-for-5, the horse that was purchased for $11,000 as a yearling and then purchased for $35,000 as a 2-year-old by Reddam, will be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Nobody enjoyed the last two weeks more than O'Neill.
"I'm surrounded by so many fun people who have fun with everything," O'Neill said.
The next three weeks will no doubt include some fun, but will be even more intense.
"There's a good chance I might change my phone number," O'Neill suggested.
There will be fresh horses waiting for I'll Have Another in New York, including Dullahan (third in the Derby) and Pennsylvania's Union Rags, seventh in the Derby after a trip from racing hell.
Bodemeister could not beat I'll Have Another at a mile and quarter or a mile and three sixteenths. It is likely the fast colt will await a race like the Haskell Invitational in a few months at Monmouth Park. So, if I'll Have Another is not going to get that Triple Crown, it likely will be up to Dullahan or Union Rags.
There was a record crowd of 121,309 at Pimlico on Saturday. There will be a giant crowd at Belmont Park to see if any of these 3-year-olds can beat I'll Have Another.
What Reddam has is a horse getting better with each race and a rider who seems immune to the pressure.
"He's an amazing horse and I'm just happy to be riding him," Gutierrez said.
The rider has done nothing wrong. Neither has the horse.
"He showed that he's the real deal," Reddam said. "The other horse was not stopping."
With that effort, Bodemeister would have won the Preakness many years. Just not this year.
"I felt really good about where he was," Bodemeister's trainer Bob Baffert said. "The fractions were more reasonable. I thought we had it."
Then, he got caught by the same horse that caught him 14 days before in Kentucky.
I'll Have Another was the first horse since Big Brown in 2008 to win two Triple Crown races in the same year. The last three years had, with the exception of Rachel Alexandra's 2009 Preakness, really been a succession of mediocre performances won by mostly forgettable horses. I'll Have Another is not that. This is a very tough horse with serious talent.
That $35,000 has now turned into earnings of $2,693,600 with the $600,000 first prize from the Preakness.
Now, rider, trainer and owner get ready for another new experience -- New York. Louisville and Baltimore certainly were no problem.
"It seems like he has been riding this racetrack all his life," O'Neill said of his rider. "I was saying 'go go go.' He was patient."
And, then at just the right moment, Gutierrez asked his horse for everything he had. I'll Have Another gave it to him and fairly flew home, the horses behind him disappearing, the only horse ahead of him getting closer and closer, until horse and rider arrived at the wire at precisely the right moment.
No.9 – I'll Have Another
8.40, 3.80, 2.80
(7.90, 3.60, 2.60)
No.7 – Bodemeister
No.6 – Creative Cause
(OTB payouts in parentheses)