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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.