Triple Crown: Could this be the year?

BALTIMORE, Md. -- When Reddam Racing's I'll Have Another nipped Bodemeister in the shadow of the Preakness wire, the record-setting crowd of 121,309 in attendance at Pimlico erupted in a roar of satisfaction. At other tracks, other fans were cheering, and in homes across America the glory and pageantry of a Kentucky Derby win to Preakness score played out -- a date with history at Belmont and a chance at the Triple Crown.

It was not an easy win for the 3-year-old colt, far from it. Forced to go wide in the first turn and placed closer to the front than he had been in the Derby, he launched a steady drive around the turn for home but still had three-and-a-half lengths to make up at the top of the lane. It was vigorous urging from the ice-veined Mario Gutierrez -- who rode with the poise of one twice his age -- and the flagging energy of pacesetter Bodemeister conspired to grant him victory in the three-race series' middle jewel.

The horse deserves the credit; he earned it.

-- jockey Mario Gutierrez on I'll Have Another

It was a final time of 1:55.90 for the 1 3/16 miles, $8.40 to win as the 3-to-1 second choice in a field of 11, a neck back to Bodemeister, the 8-5 favorite who was eight-and-three-quarter lengths ahead of third-place finisher Creative Cause. Those watching railside and up in the stands would learn all of this, but at the moment they needed no statistical information to recognize valiant effort as the colt flashed past, pushed to the limit but game to the finish.
The challenge had been raised, the question had been answered.
Then Gutierrez raised his arm in triumph and cruised out around the turn to absorb the last few minutes of solitary glory, and Mike Smith wrapped up on the beaten frontrunner to think of the bitter disappointment of owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert, and over on the edge of the old dirt oval the boys from trainer Doug O'Neill's Team O'Neill were jumping, shouting, pumping their fists and high-fiving in ecstasy.

"The great thing about having a horse like I'll Have Another is it opens up a lot of doors," O'Neill said. "You get to meet so many people who love horses and love horse racing. Along the way if we can share a little bit of the backstage fun of it and the excitement and the beauty of it, I would like to do that. I would love the opportunity to do cool things in New York if we can."

What was said in the split seconds after the race's 137th running had nothing to do with politics or the records of human connections or the struggles of a sport that has come under a firestorm of negative publicity in recent months. Leave it up to the kid, 25-year-old Gutierrez, to sum it all up.
"The horse deserves the credit; he earned it," he said.

All week long, O'Neill has answered controversial questions about his record and his runner with one reference to I'll Have Another: "This horse is a pure athlete." And with a fourth straight win, all in graded stakes, the past two in Triple Crown classics, the son of Flower Alley solidified that description.

This is what it's all about. A horse like him wins these races and you're yelling at the top of your lungs and you're praying and hoping and you see him get up and there's no better feeling in the world. It's what you live for, work for, dream of.

"He never got a lucky trip, and he proved a lot of people wrong," Gutierrez said. "I know the horse is a great horse. He ran a huge race, and he makes me feel a lot of confidence. He has a tremendous kick in the end."

Tremendous kicks are good for the mile-and-a-half distance of the June 9 Belmont Stakes, where I'll Have Another will be headed by van Sunday at 8:00 a.m. Thirty horses have won the Derby and Preakness and run in the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Nineteen have tried and lost, just 11 succeeded. The last with a shot was Big Brown in 2008 -- he ran ninth in New York, upset by Da' Tara -- and the last with the victory was Affirmed in 1978, 34 years ago and nine years before Gutierrez was even born.

"Look, there are a lot of horses that have been in this position and it didn't happen for them," said the colt's owner, J. Paul Reddam. "We're only two-thirds there, right? So we've got to be cool and try to block everything out. When we get to the Belmont, just ride the race, and if it happens, it happens."

In the aftermath of victory, I'll Have Another strode back to the barn, his bright coat glinting like a penny in the setting sun. The admiring remarks continued long after his departure, and two reporters talking on the rail condensed the thoughts of all who saw his Preakness score.

"Well, that was a horse race. We may have a Triple Crown!"

"Oh, we've got a story now."

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.