BALTIMORE — I’ll Have Another poked his head out of his stall, started nibbling on his nameplate tacked to a wall and looked up at all the people watching his every move.
Yes, I’ll Have Another came out of his thrilling Preakness win over Bodemeister in “super shape,” trainer Doug O’Neill said Sunday, and now comes New York for a Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
“Bring it on! We’re ready to go. Super pumped!” O’Neill said as he held court outside the stall of his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. “I can’t put into words how incredible it is. We’re just on Cloud 9. It’s super exciting.”
The colorful and controversial trainer was returning to his home base in California, and making plans for the trip to New York in the next week or so. I’ll Have Another, meanwhile, was loaded onto a horse van at Pimlico and arrived at Belmont Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. O’Neill’s assistant, Jack Sisterson, will oversee the chestnut colt until O’Neill and the rest of his team arrive.
The trainer took time to soak in the moment before leaving Baltimore, though, and to contemplate the pressure-packed days that await leading to the first Triple Crown attempt since 2008. It will be the 12th Triple try since 1978, when Affirmed won thoroughbred racing’s most elusive prize.
“It’s hasn’t completely sunk in yet,” he said. “The party out here at the barn after the race was like wow! I’ve never seen anything like that — everyone so excited about horse racing and I’ll Have Another being 2-for-2. I definitely feel the energy and buzz in the air.”
He hasn’t seen anything yet.
The Triple Crown quest brought some tantalizingly close calls since Affirmed turned back Alydar in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont 34 years ago — the longest drought between Triple Crown champions.
There was Real Quiet in 1998, who looked like a lock to take the Belmont until he was nailed at the wire by Victory Gallop. And there was Smarty Jones, who also seemed golden in the Belmont stretch only to be reeled in by 36-1 shot Birdstone in the final 70 yards.
So can I’ll Have another win it? Steve Cauthen, the fresh-faced, 18-year-old jockey who rode Affirmed into history, believes the colt can deliver. Not only does he see similarities with Affirmed, but “The Kid’” can relate to what “new-kid-on-the-block” rider Mario Gutierrez is experiencing.
“I guess I’m having a flashback,” Cauthen said Sunday from his breeding farm in Verona, Ky. “He’s a new kid on the block like I was. The kid’s got a great attitude and a great smile. And, like me, he’s been put in a position to ride in these kinds of races and a shot at maybe winning the Triple Crown. And the trainer and owner have confidence in him, and that’s important, because Laz (Barrera, Affirmed’s trainer) and Mr. Wolfson (owner Louis Wolfson) were 100 percent behind me.”
As for I’ll Have Another, Cauthen said the colt seems relaxed and takes things in stride, just like Affirmed.
“Horses that seem to come out of their races pretty well, it means they don’t bother themselves, and that’s a huge benefit when you’ve got three tough races,” Cauthen added. “It’s like three title fights in five weeks. You are taking on the best around. With Affirmed, he always did the right thing. He didn’t waste any energy. And when it came down to a battle, he thrived on it.
“This horse looks like he’s got that fighting spirit. He likes a game, and he wants to win and he can’t wait to get another battle. He thrives on it and to me that’s why more than anything he’s got a good chance.”
The race is one thing, the buildup another. Some cave to the pressure, others try to find ways to deal with it. Since Affirmed, no one’s come up with the winning formula.
J. Paul Reddam, who owns I’ll Have Another, would like nothing better than to have his horse join the equine pantheon of Triple Crown heroes that includes Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Citation. He’s just dreading all the time before the race.
“I’m actually not looking forward to the next three weeks at all,” Reddam said. “I know there is going to be a certain amount of tension, and I’m not eager to do a bunch of TV interviews. That’s not me.”
“I am going to tell everyone to try and keep the tension down. Enjoy it. If you want to be in the spotlight, knock yourself out. If you started singing on David Letterman, you probably carried it too far. But this is supposed to be fun.”
O’Neill already has embraced the hoopla, and can’t wait to take Manhattan.
“Like we did in Louisville and Baltimore, when we come to New York we’re going to see the town, enjoy it, soak it in,” he said. “And the reason we’re enjoying it so much is the horse has been thriving so much. If he continues to do good, we’ll have a good time.”
There could be bumpy times, too. O’Neill has been under scrutiny over his many violations for giving his horses improper drugs. He has been accused in California of “milkshaking,” the illegal practice of giving a horse a blend of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes. The mixture is designed to reduce fatigue and enhance performance. He was fined $1,000 and suspended 15 days in one incident. He is contesting another and faces penalties ranging from a minimum 90-day suspension and a $5,000 fine to a maximum 180-day suspension and fine of $15,000.
“I can’t talk about all that stuff,” O’Neill said. “I know we play by the rules, and I know we love our horses and we take great care of them.”
He chooses to accentuate the positive.
“One thing we have here is an open-door policy and a backstage pass for everybody,” he said. “And it’s been a great opportunity to share with everybody who loves horse racing to see what goes into trying to take care of a horse. You can say whatever you want about me, but you have to be so amazed at how amazing I’ll Have Another and all of the people around him are in taking care of him.”
After winning the Santa Anita Derby by a nose, the colt purchased by Reddam for $35,000 won the Derby by 1½ lengths with a stretch run that caught Bodemeister in the final 100 yards. I’ll Have Another then produced an even more dramatic finish in Saturday’s Preakness, reeling in Bodemeister in the final strides to win by a neck.
In less than three weeks, it’s the biggest test of all, the grueling, 1½-mile Belmont, the longest of the Triple Crown races known as the “Test of the Champion.”
The wait is on.
“These three weeks will be the longest of their lives,” Cauthen said. “Every day they wake up, they have to make sure nothing goes wrong, that when he comes back from a gallop something doesn’t happen to him, like he steps on a stone or something silly. No matter what you do, there’s always going to be pressure, probably even more so now after 34 years without a Triple Crown.’”