NEW YORK — Nothing comes easy in the nerve-racking weeks before the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line.
Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, is learning just how difficult it is to avoid all the roadblocks as he prepares his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner for a chance to become the first Triple Crown champion in 34 years.
“Welcome to New York,” rival trainer Dale Romans said.
While I’ll Have Another has been a picture of perfection during his morning gallops around Belmont Park, oblivious to what’s going on around him, it’s been one thing after another for Team O’Neill.
“I’ve been looking under my car every morning before I start it up,” O’Neill kidded.
The 44-year-old trainer shrugs off at least publicly the criticism thrown his way for numerous drug and medication violations, including a 45-day suspension issued last week in California.
“It’s all about the horse. As long as the horse is going great, we’re all doing good,” he said.
I’ll Have Another has been ready to go all year, winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and then the Santa Anita Derby in his Derby preps.
Everything was falling into place and I’ll Have Another corralled Bodemeister in the final 100 yards to win the Derby on May 5, and reeled him again in the final strides to win the Preakness on May 19.
Ever since the colt was put on a van to New York the day after the Preakness, though, there have been a number of bumps on the road to the Belmont. Some jarring, others not so much.
A traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike turned a 4½-hour ride from Baltimore to Belmont into a 6½-hour ordeal.
The next day, it was revealed that I’ll Have Another would not be able to wear the nasal strip he wore when he won the Derby and Preakness. New York’s racing stewards prohibit nasal strips, citing issues with how to regulate its use.
I’ll Have Another also went without regular exercise rider Jonny Garcia until a week ago because of visa issues. One of trainer Todd Pletcher’s riders took him out at first, then another O’Neill exercise rider took over until Garcia was granted his license to ride in New York, which came on Tuesday.
A day later, tragedy was avoided by inches. With Garcia aboard I’ll Have Another before a morning gallop, a 3-year-old filly dumped her rider and came “screaming up the outside rail.” Somehow, the loose horse ran between I’ll Have Another and the rail. Garcia said the horse grazed his boot.
“That made my heart skip a beat,” O’Neill said, “but the racing gods must have been looking out for him.”