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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.
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."