BALTIMORE — Paint the sidewalks of New York, light up the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty — we’ve got ourselves a Triple Crown bid coming our way in three weeks, potentially a day for the history books, the first in 34 years.
I’ll Have Another, the unsung hero of the Kentucky Derby, brought forth the possibility when he unleashed his now patented stretch run to wear down his fabulously fast adversary, Bodemeister, to win the Preakness Stakes in a nail-biting thriller and set himself up for a run at the Belmont Stakes — and turf immortality.
TWICE AS NICE: I’ll Have Another (No. 9), Mario Gutierrez up, storms past Bodemeister (inside) to win yesterday’s Preakness Stakes and now has a shot at the Triple Crown.
Not since Affirmed went all the way in 1978 has a horse captured the Crown.
But not since the heart-pounding duel between Affirmed and Alydar, the excruciating standoff between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer has the Old Hilltop track at Pimlico showcased a Preakness stretch run so exciting, so dramatic as I’ll Have Another’s grinding, grinding neck triumph over Bodemeister.
Hardly had the horses crossed the wire before I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, yelled, “We’re headed for New York, baby.”
And you know what? They could take the town by storm. Do they throw ticker-tape parades for horses?
This is a team to celebrate, a humble horse bought for $35,000, owned by a generous, gregarious financier Paul Reddam, trained by a man whose family has struggled and suffered to reach the top, and ridden by a young Mexican rookie, pitched head-first into the big time, only to pull it off like Eddie Arcaro.
Pimlico has been in business for 139 years but it may not have had a better day ever than yesterday. Blessed with golden sunshine, an infield filled with wall-to-wall revelers, the biggest crowd ever of 121,309 streamed through its gates. They got a truly memorable classic for their money.
Horse races seldom run to script, but this one filled it word for word. Bodemeister, the speediest stayer in the country, bounded out of the gate — as expected — and settled beautifully in the lead under a snug hold by jockey Mike Smith. He went the fractions in comfortable times, an easy 47.68 seconds for the half mile, the six furlongs in 1:11.7. Perfect.
I’lll Have Another drafted in behind horses from the gate, running sixth, outside horses. It was left to Creative Cause to take up the chase on Bodemeister.
At the top of the stretch, Bodemeister looked unassailable, floating easy with Creative Cause giving up the hunt. And then it happened. From the outside flashed the white and purple colors of I’ll Have Another to throw down the gauntlet, just as he had at Churchill Downs.
The war was joined.
A furlong out, Bodemeister still was three lengths in front, seemingly unbeatable. I’ll Have Another dug in, as he had at Churchill Downs, and stride by stride, cut into Bodemeister’s lead. A few yards out, Bodemeister was still in front.
Then, in an instant, I’ll Have Another had his head in front. It was over. Suddenly, the whole Triple Crown saga burst onto the horizon.
And the big question now is: Who can beat him? Bodemeister, the only horse in the land who can run with I’ll Have Another, will not attempt the 11⁄2 miles. Consider the finish of the Preakness: Creative Cause was nearly nine lengths behind Bodemeister and the rest nowhere.
I’ll Have Another now towers over the crop, not just because he has won the Derby and the Preakness, but because he has beaten the rest of the opposition to pulp. His running style, his obvious robust stamina and his breeding suggest the Belmont distance will be no problem.
Bodemeister had no excuse. Unlike the Derby, where he burned himself to a cinder with lightning fractions, he cut an ideal pace here. No one was more worried than I’ll Have Another’s owner.
“When I saw the fractions, I knew we were in for a dogfight. In the stretch, Bodemeister was not stopping,” Reddam said. “I just wasn’t sure he would get there.”
That goes for everybody.
“I thought I put him away but he reached up and got us with three strides,” Mike Smith said.
The only one not surprised was I’ll Have Another’s extraordinary jockey, Mario Gutierrez, who timed his run with Swiss-watch precision.
“This is not about me,” he said later, suitably humble. “It’s all about the horse. He’s an amazing horse.”
Suddenly, the racing game is the game of the hour.
Preakness Stakes, Preakness, Preakness, Bodemeister, Bodemeister, Mario Gutierrez, Mario Gutierrez, Creative Cause, Triple Crown, Kentucky Derby