It was in the last few days before the race that he began to think beyond the Preakness, even before it was won. Doug O'Neill was caught in that odd, yet predictable, hailstorm of sudden celebrity and scrutiny that falls upon any trainer whose horse wins the Kentucky Derby. Public appearances. Repetitive interviews. Everything that is good and bad about racing tossed onto his shoulders like the roses across his colt's withers at Churchill Downs. But through it all there was the horse.
In the mornings at Pimlico Race Course on the north side of Baltimore, I'll Have Another would gallop powerfully around the loamy oval, swallowing up the course in front of him and effortlessly spitting it out behind, seemingly unwearied by his Derby win on May 5 or the two victories that came before it, back home in California. O'Neill would stand by the rail with his backstretch posse, a rollicking collection of friends, family and advisers known as Team O'Neill, and study his horse. "He kept telling me he was ready to roll," says O'Neill. "I couldn't believe how good he was doing."
As the sun rose over Pimlico, O'Neill would settle into a chair in his temporary office in the tack room at the west end of Barn D, a long, green clapboard building with a metal roof, and flip open a spiral notebook with a picture of his family on the cover: his wife, Linette; son, Daniel, 10; and daughter, Kaylin Dixie, 7. Inside were the names of the 80 horses in the O'Neill stable, with rows of small boxes for recording daily workouts. Each day O'Neill would pencil in I'll Have Another's box, usually with a simple G, for gallop. (For the Kentucky Derby he wrote a capital R, for race, a smaller W for the morning's walk and a tiny, innocuous WIN, in the lower right corner, as if it were the sixth at Hollywood.) As the stout gallops accumulated last week, O'Neill began to cast his eyes to the right of the page, where May turned into June. "I started to think about the next race," O'Neill says. "After this one." He started to think about the Belmont Stakes.
A generation of American adults is approaching middle age without having seen a horse win the Triple Crown. It has been 34 years since Affirmed outdueled Alydar to take the 1978 Belmont and wrap up racing's third Triple Crown in six years, a streak that started with the great Secretariat in '73 and included Seattle Slew in '77. It was so long ago that it no longer seems an active part of sports culture, but rather an artifact consigned to a steamer trunk with double knit pullover baseball jerseys, wooden hockey sticks and butt-hugging basketball shorts, a vague oddity slowly fading into the fog of history, losing eyewitnesses with each passing day.
May 28, 2012
Eleven times since 1978 a horse has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and fallen short in the Belmont, which has been a cornucopia of disappointment (chart below). "The last race," says trainer Bob Baffert, who trained three of the near-missers, "is the toughest one."
I'll Have Another will be the next to try. He won the Preakness the same way he won the Derby: by wearing down the speedy, front-running Bodemeister (who was the 2--1 favorite; I'll Have Another was the second choice, at 3--1), this time just three strides from the finish. Unlike in Louisville, the Baffert-trained Bodemeister didn't set a punishing pace—47.68 seconds for the half mile and 1:11.72 for three quarters, versus 45.39 and 1:09.80 at the Derby—but I'll Have Another caught him just the same, a remarkable athletic effort. "I don't understand how I got beat,'' said Bodemeister's jockey, Mike Smith. "I feel dumbfounded, to be honest with you.''
Smith's counterpart on I'll Have Another, Mario Gutierrez, 25, duplicated his near-perfect Derby ride, timing his move to the finish perfectly and further validating his sensational rise from the obscurity of Hastings Park in Vancouver to the cusp of the Triple Crown. (He could not be less overwhelmed by all of this. Asked to describe his soft hands and veteran's timing, Gutierrez said, "I've been riding horses my whole life. I just know this stuff.'')
Direct mortgage tycoon J. Paul Reddam named I'll Have Another because of his weakness for cookies—although his slender wife, Zillah, spiked that narrative during Preakness week by saying, "We really don't eat cookies often; they're not good for you." The colt is so formidable because he has a useful combination of natural speed (he was never more than four lengths behind Bodemeister last Saturday) and stubborn cardiovascular endurance. He is a modest-sized, muscular chestnut, just under 16 hands (a hand is roughly four inches; for comparison, the great mare Zenyatta is about six inches taller), and a little under 1,100 pounds, a running back rather than a linebacker. O'Neill trains I'll Have Another almost exclusively with long, seven-furlong runs rather than short sprints. "He gallops intensely in the morning," says O'Neill's assistant, Jack Sisterson, 27. "And in the afternoon [at the races] he just grinds and grinds and grinds."
Possession of this developing skill set means two things. First, I'll Have Another's value is skyrocketing. He was sold as a yearling for the bargain-basement price of $11,000 and bought by Reddam for a cheap $35,000 in spring 2011. Now, though, he will command a heavy fee when it is time to put him out to stud.
Second—and treading lightly here on the eggshells of history—he is a major threat to win the Belmont. "If he's not a mile-and-a-half horse," says O'Neill's brother, Dennis, who selected I'll Have Another for purchase, "then there are no mile-and-a-half horses. He gets better the longer he runs."
Bodemeister, a horse that is potentially distance-challenged and who has also run six tough races in just 124 days, will not be in the field at the Belmont. There will be no Affirmed-Alydar redux. The most significant challenge is likely to come from Union Rags, a hulking specimen who was sensational as a 2-year-old but has run into lousy racing luck in three of his last four starts, including a horrific sideways break from the gate in the Kentucky Derby.
An hour after the conclusion of the Preakness, Union Rags's trainer, Michael Matz, stood watching a replay on a monitor that hung from the ceiling in the grandstand. He wore a sharp tan suit, surrounded by disheveled railbirds who were beaten down by a long day at the windows. "He's a really nice horse," said Matz of I'll Have Another, and then he smiled. "I'm sure going to try to beat him." Horse racing historians will loosely compare Union Rags's quest with that of Easy Goer, another long-striding monster who needed Belmont's long, arcing turns to gallop nimble Derby-Preakness winner Sunday Silence into submission, ending a Triple Crown bid in 1989. It is also expected that Derby third-place finisher Dullahan, a stretch-runner who, like Union Rags, will be well-rested at the Belmont after skipping the Preakness.
Yet it is not just opposition that will torment I'll Have Another, but the task itself: 12 furlongs of hell, under a microscope. Even though previous failures have taken many forms, it is foolish to call them coincidental. "You get to the Belmont at the end of a long campaign, with a bull's-eye on your back," says John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones. "I know I felt a lot of pressure. The first two races, they were fun. Winning the Derby was great. But I didn't enjoy that last race nearly as much."
The pressure on O'Neill will be even more intense. Racing is under withering scrutiny that centers on illegal drug use and horse breakdowns. Between the Derby and the Preakness, SI was among several news organizations to report that, according to the Association of Racing Commissioners, O'Neill has been fined or suspended 14 times in 14 years for drug violations (one more, from 2010, remains under appeal). The New York Times also produced research that showed O'Neill's horses break down at twice the national average. ("I'd by lying if I said it hasn't been a troubling and upsetting week," O'Neill told SI a week before the Preakness. "I wish the focus could be on the present.") The press will inquire further about these things and possibly even about the financial problems facing the New York Racing Association, which hosts the Belmont—and with which O'Neill has zero connection, except in larger presentations on the problems of racing.
Yet O'Neill is wired in such a way that he will handle the scrutiny better than most. He is extroverted and conversationally facile. The racing public seems to connect with his rumpled, Family Guy vibe. (His wife, who met O'Neill at St. Monica High in Santa Monica, Calif., says, "I knew he liked the horse racing stuff. I never imagined he could make a living doing it." In February, after I'll Have Another won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes to stamp himself a potential Derby horse, Doug came home excited and the O'Neills had dinner with new neighbors who pulled out their best Scotch to toast the horse's future.) Before the Preakness, as O'Neill walked from the barn to the saddling paddock along the homestretch rail, wearing an ill-fitting fedora, fans hoisted cans of Bud Light and shouted at him: All three, Doug! "Is this bitchin' or what?" O'Neill said. "Once in a lifetime."
When it was over he arrived back at Barn D to find a raucous celebration in high gear. Outside the tack room he embraced I'll Have Another's groom, Inocencio Diaz, who is half a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than O'Neill. "Did he drink up?" O'Neill asked, gesturing toward the horse's stall. "Mucho Agua?" Diaz laughed and nodded. On Sunday morning O'Neill would open his notebook and enter Saturday's result. A little r, a big w, a little win. Twenty-one spots to the right sits June 9, an empty square awaiting history.
TRIPLE TROUBLE: A long history of coming up short
Seven horses in the last 15 years have gone to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. None has succeeded
Jockey Gary Stevens had the lead 50 yards from the wire but lost by three quarters of a length to Touch Gold.
Jockey Kent Desormeaux moved too early and lost at the wire, trainer Bob Baffert's second straight heartbreak.
The 2--1 favorite was in third place when he suffered a broken leg on the homestretch, ending his racing career.
He was doomed by a stumble out of the gate, clearing the way for 70--1 long shot Sarava to win.
Owned by an ordinary-Joe consortium, the people's choice finished 5¼ lengths behind Empire Maker.
The 1--5 favorite fell to 36--1 Birdstone, whose trainer apologized for ruining such a feel-good story.
Seemingly dominant, he was mysteriously eased in the stretch, allowing 38--1 long shot Da' Tara to win.