LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Besides Churchill Downs and Louisville Slugger baseball bats, this old Ohio River town's main claim to fame has been the whiskey industry. It's the kind of place where there's virtually a bar on every corner in the blue-collar neighborhoods. The great sportswriter Jim Murray once described Louisville as a "bourbon-soaked bar-rag of a town."
So you'd think that when a thoroughbred named I'll Have Another showed up in the Kentucky Derby, he'd be sort of a sentimental choice -- at least a lot lower than 15-to-1. Yet those were I'll Have Another's odds when his jockey, a Derby rookie named Mario Gutierrez, hunched up in his saddle and waited for the starting gate to spring open in the 138th running of America's coveted horse race.
Heck, the record 165,307 party animals who jammed into Churchill Down on a nearly 90-degree afternoon guzzled an ungodly amount of Early Times mint juleps, the official drink of the Derby. If everybody who said, "I'll have another" to a julep vendor had bet on Gutierrez's colt, he would have gone off as the favorite instead of a virtually ignored longshot.
As he sat chilly in the No. 19 starting stall, Gutierrez had no idea that no horse had ever won the Derby from that post position. Over the years, horses who start from that far off the rail generally have trouble finding a decent spot in the pack as the field breaks from the gate and comes down the long Churchill stretch for the first time.
But Gutierrez, a native of Mexico who until recently was doing most of his riding at little Hastings Park in Vancouver, handled the challenge with the aplomb of a veteran. When the gate sprung open, I'll Have Another showed an early burst of speed that drew him clear of the horses to his immediate inside.
Settling into a good stalking spot five or six horses back of the freaky-fast Bodemeister, who ran the fastest first quarter of a mile in Derby history and the fifth-fastest half, I'll Have Another had only one horse between him and the rail as the field spun out of the first turn and straightened out on the backstretch.
But all eyes were on Bodemeister, who was trying to give trainer Bob Baffert his fourth Derby victory less than two months after the white-maned trainer had suffered a heart attack in Dubai. As Bodemeister galloped along, running free and clear on the lead, you could almost hear the media folks cranking up their Baffert feel-good stories.
Bodemeister ran a brilliant mile and an eighth. Unfortunately for him, the Derby is a mile and a quarter. Less than 100 yards before the finish line, I'll Have Another swept past Bodemeister and pulled away for a 1½-length victory in 2:01.83. The victory earned $1.4 million for owner Paul Reddam, the man who bought the colt at auction for $42,000 and urged O'Neill to give Gutierrez a shot on the colt.
Sometimes the owner knows best.
Making his first appearance aboard I'll Have Another in the Santa Anita's Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 12, Gutierrez guided the 43-to-1 shot to a 2½-length victory. His work impressed Redddam and Lewis enough to put him back on the Kentucky-bred son of Flower Alley in the Santa Anita Derby on April 12. This time Gutierrez and I'll Have Another caught the favored Creative Cause at the wire for a nose victory that punched their ticket to the Derby.
After the race, an emotional Gutierrez said he wasn't rattled by the size of the crowd or the field. This is a great opportunity in my life," he said. "I wasn't going to come here and melt down, that's for sure."
Gutierrez became the 42nd jockey to win the Derby on his first try, and nobody was more impressed with Gutierrez's work than Mike Smith, the veteran who was aboard Bodemeister. Smith said his colt wanted to run so he didn't try to restrain him. However, the fast early fractions proved costly at the end.
"At the top of the stretch," said Smith, "I really thought we had it. But I knew we were in trouble when I saw Doug's horse coming."
The only other horse who ran up to his potential was Dullahan, who had to go nine wide in the turn for home, but came flying to finish third. The favored Union Rags had his usual bad luck, breaking slow and getting bumped to the rear early. The white horse, Hansen, spit out the bit at the top of the stretch and struggled home ninth.
According to Reddam, I'll Have Another's name came from what he says whenever his wife bakes cookies. In a place like Louisville, though, it has another meaning entirely -- especially on the day the city turns into the world's largest outdoor cocktail party.
Assuming that he comes out of the race unscathed, the Derby winner definitely will try to capture the second leg of racing's Triple Crown -- the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 19.
"Baltimore, here we come!" chortled O'Neill.
In other words, when it comes to Triple Crown races, he'll have another.