The drought is over in more ways than one. It's been 23 years since the Santa Anita Derby winner has stood in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby. To top that off, no horse from post No. 19 has ever won the Kentucky Derby, and only one has hit the board in 21 attempts.
With a sun-drenched record crowd of 165,307 looking on at historic Churchill Downs, both streaks came to an end late Saturday afternoon when the California-based colt I'll Have Another ($32.60) won the Kentucky Derby 138 by 1 1/2 -lengths over the speedy and talented Bodemeister. The two horses completed a West Coast exacta that paid $306.60 for a $2 wager.
The win also signaled the first win in three Derby tries for Doug O'Neill, a spirited trainer who's been known to have a good time now and again. He was sky-high after the victory, exclaiming he now can answer the question he is asked the most. "When you tell people you're in the horse racing game, they ask you, 'Have you won the Kentucky Derby?' Now I can say, 'Yes, I have actually, in 2012,' " he joked during the post race press conference.
The 43-year-old, best known for training the West Coast handicap horse Lava Man, has won more than 1,600 times in his career. His best finish in the Run for the Roses was 13th in 2007, with Great Hunter. Like Lava Man, who was actually claimed for $62,500 before winning more than $5.2 million during his storied career, I'll Have Another was purchased on the cheap, for $35,000 in the April 2011 Ocala sale.
Owner J. Paul Reddam, correlated the purchase to 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew's. "We don't come from the bluest of blood for horse racing, and that's OK. I can remember Seattle Slew being bought for $17,000, how amazing that was. Now we got this horse (I'll Have Another) for $35,000. In Seattle Slew dollars, he was probably cheaper," the beaming owner exclaimed. "We're a working class group, from the trainer, the owner, the jockey," said Reddam.
The fun loving connections all won for the first time, including jockey Mario Gutierrez, who watched last year's Derby in the jockey room at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, British Columbia. Reddam was quick to point out that outside forces may have been involved in the victory. "I want to mention there was some karma today because it was Cinco de Mayo, right, and we rode the Mexican rider," deadpanned the winning owner.
I'll Have Another's breeding also offered several clues to handicappers that he could handle the grueling 10-furlong distance. His sire, Flower Alley, won the 1 1/4 -mile Travers Stakes at Saratoga and finished second in the Breeders' Cup (BC) Classic at the same distance, both in 2005. His damsire, Arch, also sired the 2010 BC Classic winner, Blame, who defeated Zenyatta in deep stretch over the same 10-furlong Churchill surface.
The track absorbed a good amount of rain overnight, and by the time the Derby was raced, two track records had been set during the undercard. Those conditions propelled Bodemeister to the top of the odds board by post time. Trained by Bob Baffert and named after his 5-year-old son, Bode, the talented 3-year-old by Empire Maker almost wired the field after blazing early fractions, only to be caught in deep stretch by the winner. He would have become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win without a race as a 2-year-old.
The speedy Bodemeister could be a real threat if his connections decide to run him in two weeks at Pimlico at the Preakness' shorter 1 3/1 6-mile distance. Baffert has thrived in the second jewel, winning the Preakness five times over his Hall of Fame career.
Bodemeister's jockey, Mike Smith, thought he was free and clear while leading all the way. "At the top of the stretch, I really thought we had it, but I knew we were in trouble when I saw Doug's horse coming," said Smith, a Derby winning jockey on Giacomo in 2005.
The race should set up a nice rematch between the top two horses in Baltimore in two weeks. Racing's Triple Crown has been dormant for 34 years, last won by Affirmed in 1978 after three classic duels with his rival, Alydar. I'll Have Another is certainly a fresh horse, running only two times this year before the Derby.
Reddam said everything is going according to plan.
"We gave the horse only two preps this year. Part of the idea was we knew we had a good horse, and we wanted to make sure he was fresh because the Triple Crown is a gamble and it looks like it paid off," Reddam said.
For now, I'll Have Another's connections are the toast of the town in Louisville and in the words of trainer O'Neill, "Maryland, here we come, baby!" It's on to the Preakness.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He posts every Friday at the Sports, Ink blog and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).