BALTIMORE — Chasing Bodemeister around the track at Pimlico Race Course, jockey Mario Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another also were chasing a chance at history. This is what he and trainer Doug O’Neill were prepared for.
“Mario did mention, ‘Now if Bodemeister goes real easy, you want me to press him, right?’ I said, ‘Mario, you know the horse. Ride him to the best of your ability.’ and he did just that,” O’Neill said. “In the end, we were both pretty comfortable and relaxed. We were both pretty confident.”
I'll Have Another’s win in the Preakness Stakes started the countdown to the Belmont Stakes and a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Tackling the 1½-mile Belmont is a daunting challenge that has stopped eight horses short in the past 15 years, but there’s reason to believe I'll Have Another is just the one to do it, especially after Saturday.
“I thought this was a really, really good horse kind of going in. But I think after today he’s kind of proved this is a great horse,” assistant trainer Dennis O'Neill said. “The way this horse runs, they’re going to play hell catching him, just the way he runs. I think his style for the mile-and-a-half is really good. I don’t think anybody doubts he’s gonna get the mile and a half.”
There were plenty of doubts about I'll Have Another, Doug O’Neill and Gutierrez even this week. Of course, owner Paul Reddam said that he never doubted either one. In the paddock before the race Saturday, O’Neill and Gutierrez were laughing, which put Reddam at ease.
“They were joking before getting a leg up and I thought, ‘OK, he’s going to be OK,’ ” Reddam said. “These guys really, they deserve the win. Absolutely.”
They deserved the win perhaps because this wasn’t about a perfect trip or getting lucky that other horses fell off in the end. Bodemeister’s trainer, Bob Baffert, couldn’t complain.
“The winner’s a good horse. He’ll get the respect now that he deserves,” said Baffert, who has won five Preakness Stakes during his Hall of Fame career. “I’m proud that, as a trainer, my horse showed up and he ran his race and he got beat. That’s all you can ask for.”
I'll Have Another was just better, again. He’s 4 for 4 this year, with Gutierrez aboard for every victory. The 25-year-old jockey never has been to New York, but limited experience didn’t seem to bother him at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby or Pimlico for the Preakness.
“The horse has done everything that we have asked of him this year. He hasn’t had the most respect, he has never been favored,” Reddam said. “I think for those who have followed the horse and bet him, that’s been pretty rewarding. I don’t know that’ll be the case next time up [after] today’s performance.”
With I'll Have Another already set up at Belmont Park almost three weeks before the June 9 date with destiny, there’s little doubt he’ll have a huge target as some in the business take their best shot at making it 34 years without a Triple Crown champion.
The longest race of the Triple Crown season has thwarted so many, most recently Big Brown in 2008. That concern might not be a problem for I'll Have Another.
“I think he’s got the distance,” Baffert said Friday. “He doesn’t have distance limitations. He could just keep on going.”
It’s a long run to immortality, but I’ll Have Another and Co. seem more than prepared for what’s coming in the next few weeks.
“Now the pressure is going to intensify. We’ll all just talk together. Look, there’s a lot of horses that have been in this position the last 15 years. It didn’t happen for them,” Reddam said. “We’re only two-thirds there, right? So we’ve got to be cool. … We’re going to just try to tell [Gutierrez] to block everything out, and when we get to the Belmont, just ride his race. And if it happens, it happens.”