BALTIMORE — I'll Have Another waited a little longer to catch Bodemeister in the stretch this time, and now that he's done it twice in a row it's time for a Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes.
With a breathtaking closing rush, the smooth-striding colt won the Preakness Stakes by a neck at Pimlico Race Course on a sunny Saturday, a nail-biter of a finish that topped his win two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby.
The race unfolded the same way as the Derby, with the speedy Bodemeister moving to the lead under Mike Smith, with I'll Have Another hanging back in fourth in the 11-horse field. The early fractions were slower than the Derby, but when it came time for Bodemeister to hang on, I'll Have Another found another gear under young jockey Mario Gutierrez and ran down trainer Bob Baffert's horse in the shadow of the wire.
"We're thinking Triple Crown, baby," an elated trainer Doug O'Neill said. "He's a special horse. We'll see how he comes out of it, and if he comes out of it in good shape, we're heading to New York, baby."
It's been 34 years since Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont and became the 11th and most recent Triple Crown champion. Since then, 11 horses have won the first two legs only to come up short in the Belmont. The most recent try came in 2008, when Big Brown was pulled up around the turn for home and did not finish. Before that, Smarty Jones was run down in the final 70 yards by Birdstone in the 2004 Belmont.
With the two victories thrusting the colorful and controversial O'Neill squarely into the limelight, scrutiny is sure to intensify about his violations for giving his horses improper drugs. He was fined $1,000 and suspended 15 days in one incident. He is contesting another.
"We know we play by the rules," O'Neill said. "It's all about the horse, and we're just going to focus on the horse."
If margins are an indication, perhaps I'll Have Another has a Triple Crown in his future. Affirmed won the Derby by the identical 11/2 lengths over Alydar, and then beat his rival by the same neck margin in the Preakness.
"I didn't feel confident we were going to get there until 10 yards from the wire," owner J. Paul Reddam said.
I'll Have Another, sent off as the second choice at 3-1 over 8-5 favorite Bodemeister, covered the 13?16 miles in 1:55.94.
Creative Cause was third, 8¾ lengths behind hard-luck runner-up Bodemeister, followed by Zetterholm, Teeth of the Dog, Optimizer, Cozzetti, Tiger Walk, Daddy Nose Best, Went the Day Well and Pretension.
Baffert, a five-time Preakness winner, thought his colt — named for his 7-year-old son, Bode — could pull off the win.
"I felt really good about where he was," Baffert said. "I really thought he was going to do it. The winner is a good horse. He should get the respect now that he deserves."
The chestnut colt has never been favored in any of his seven races, but won five of them along with $2,693,600 after he was purchased by Reddam for $35,000 on the advice of O'Neill's brother, Dennis.
"He showed he's the real deal. He's a real race horse. He gutted it out," Reddam said. "The other horse was not stopping. He ran a bang-up race, to come and catch him, how can you criticize that?"
Gutierrez, who was riding at Hastings Park in Western Canada until showing up in California last winter, displayed the calm and cunning of a veteran.
"It's not me, it's him. It's all about the horse," the 25-year-old jockey from Mexico said. "He just keeps proving people wrong. I'm so happy for him because he's such a great horse. He has a tremendous kick in the end."