Some say the Kentucky Derby has a soul, and that roses are dispensed with karmic justice to the kind and the deserving. This is not true. The Derby has a scythe that cuts down the weak in a merciless two-minute crucible of reality and racing fortune inflicted upon the starstruck, the foolish and the unlucky. Shortcomings become evident. Entourages fall silent. The race is sometimes won, but more often it is survived.
This is an article from the May 14, 2012 issue
A setting sun cut long, slashing shadows across Churchill Downs last Saturday as a julep-soaked, Derby-record crowd of 165,307 spilled into the streets of Louisville. The spectators had seen a colt named Bodemeister run one of the greatest races in recent Derby history, only to lose in the final strides. They had seen a 15--1 shot named I'll Have Another doggedly stalk the leader until making the front with less than 100 yards from the finish and then drawing away to win by 1½ lengths.
Now on a brick patio behind the grandstand that supports the Downs's iconic twin spires, Doug O'Neill, who trains I'll Have Another, wrapped a bear hug around his childhood buddy Mark Verge. The two of them went to the track together for the first time in 1981; they were junior high basketball teammates in Santa Monica, Calif., and their coach took them to Santa Anita. Next, O'Neill embraced his brother and business partner, Dennis, who beat cancer five years ago and picked out I'll Have Another for $35,000 in April 2011 at a sale in Ocala, Fla., which made him one of the cheapest horses in the field. "Nobody thinks they're really going to win the Kentucky Derby," said Doug, his round, bearded face sweating in the warm air. "Do they?"
Bob Baffert did. As the O'Neills celebrated, Baffert, who trains Bodemeister, rode quietly in a car from Churchill to his Louisville hotel, gutted at the latest twist in an emotional spring. The 59-year-old, three-time Derby winner suffered a heart attack after a long flight to Dubai in late March, just as Bodemeister was beginning to flourish. Bodemeister is named for Bob and Jill Baffert's son (and only child), seven-year-old Bode, who in turn was named after Bob's friend Olympic skier Bode Miller. (Baffert has four children from his first marriage.) "It was very emotional for me," he said after the Derby loss. "Not just for the clients, but for my little son, Bode. It would have been my biggest thrill."
I'll Have Another has spent much of his racing life far beneath the radar. His path to Louisville began in September 2010, just an hour away from Churchill in the yearling sales ring at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky. There, an unnamed colt by the stallion Flower Alley and the mare Arch's Gal Edith was purchased for the low price of $11,000 by Victor Davila, an exercise rider at Eisaman Equine training center in Williston, Fla.
The center is operated by veterinarian Barry Eisaman and his wife, Shari, who break more than 200 horses a year, some that they have bought to eventually sell (pinhooking, in racing parlance) and some for other trainers. Ruler on Ice, the 2011 Belmont Stakes winner, was broken at their farm. Davila is one of their employees. "He saved his money and wanted to buy some horses to sell," says Barry. "The credit really goes to him."
It really does. In 2008, Davila, who was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. in 1994, bought a horse for $5,000 and Eisaman sold it for $105,000; in 2009 he bought one for $7,000 and sold it for $35,000. For the yearling who would become I'll Have Another, Davila went $1,000 over his self-imposed limit and then took the colt back to Williston and did the breaking himself. "I could see he was a nice horse," said Davila, 34, the day after the Derby. "He went over the ground well. I liked him."
Eisaman entered the colt in the Ocala Breeders Sale for two-year-olds in training in April 2011. Dennis O'Neill is a regular at that sale. The O'Neills have been a team since Doug began training in 1991. Dennis, now 49, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in '06 and underwent six months of chemotherapy. "A day like this makes it all worthwhile," he would say after the Derby.
Davila's two-year-old was modestly bred. At the sale in Ocala, the colt breezed through the mandatory eighth of a mile in an unspectacular 10.3 seconds. Dennis O'Neill noticed flaws, but, he said, the horse "had a beautiful, long stride. When he went for [only] 35, I was surprised."
The check was written by J. Paul Reddam, 56, whose money came from starting the mortgage company Ditech.com, which he sold to General Motors in 1999, and the finance company CashCall, of which he is still president. Reddam says he named the colt for his standard response when his wife offers him cookies.
The colt went to Doug O'Neill, 43, who trains many of Reddam's runners. O'Neill has been a prolific and successful trainer in California for more than a decade and an engaging spirit whose cellphone ringtone is the opening guitar riff from Joe Walsh's Life's Been Good.
I'll Have Another broke his maiden at Hollywood Park last July and then finished second in a stakes race at Del Mar in August before shipping all the way to Saratoga and getting trounced in a sloppy Hopeful Stakes. That loss took him off the Derby radar. "We just gave him a whole lot of time off," says O'Neill. The horse was treated during the spring with shock-wave therapy for a back problem.
He also had a new jockey. At Reddam's behest, they tried Mario Gutierrez, 25, a Mexican who had gotten his start at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City and had been riding mostly in the minor leagues at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver. He won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 43--1 odds and then outfinished the respected Creative Cause to win the Santa Anita Derby. Before the Kentucky Derby, O'Neill twice worked I'll Have Another at six furlongs, longer than most Derby contenders. The works built stamina without dulling his speed.
On Wednesday afternoon of Derby week, O'Neill and Gutierrez went to the Kentucky Derby Museum and watched past runnings of the race (also at Reddam's urging). They determined that 47 seconds was the ideal contender's half-mile split time. "Wherever that put us in the race," says O'Neill. "Forty-seven looked like the sweet spot."
When the gate opened on Saturday, Bodemeister popped athletically into the lead, which is how he won the April 14 Arkansas Derby. He ripped through sizzling fractions of 22.32 seconds for a quarter mile, 45.39 for the half and 1:09.80 for the three quarters. The last horse to run that fast in front and win was Spend A Buck in 1985; every horse since has collapsed. Bodemeister kept going: A mile in 1:35.19, fifth fastest in Derby history, and he still led clearly after a mile and an eighth. "He was running hard, man," said Bodemeister's jockey, Mike Smith. "He never quit on me."
Behind him, Gutierrez gave I'll Have Another a garden trip, off the rail, never more than a few lengths back and damn close to 47 flat at the half. "Smart horse," said Gutierrez. "He did most of it himself."
Entering the final turn, I'll Have Another began picking off horses. Barry Eisaman stopped in front of a television in a concourse at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, catching a connecting flight. Victor Davila watched at home in Ocala with his wife and three children, feeling pride at having broken the horse. Doug O'Neill was along the rail at Churchill Downs, first hoping to hold on for second place, then asking for more and getting it.
And as darkness fell, racing turned its gaze toward Baltimore and the May 19 Preakness. I'll Have Another will continue his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years. O'Neill posed for photos and signed autographs during the winner's party at the same museum where he had studied film with his jockey. In his pocket was a betting slip from a Nevada casino: $100 to win on I'll Have Another at 200--1 odds, placed on Feb. 3 and now worth more than $20,000. On a nearby table sat his drinks: one glass of wine, one bottle of beer and one mint julep. Inescapably, a triple crown.