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May 14, 2012
An undervalued horse ridden by an unknown jockey roared to an unexpected victory and began pursuit of the elusive Triple Crown
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May 14, 2012

Another Way To Win

An undervalued horse ridden by an unknown jockey roared to an unexpected victory and began pursuit of the elusive Triple Crown

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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.

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