Each year, we go through the same routine, analyzing the winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in an attempt to convince ourselves that he is the next Triple Crown winner.
We compile all his attributes, enhance his strong points, and usually deduce that he can indeed accomplish racing’s most elusive feat. We start to get excited, counting down the days to the Preakness (gr, I) and ultimately the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). But then comes the rude awakening, whether it be at Pimlico or Belmont Park. We painfully discover that we overlooked something; those seemingly insignificant weaknesses that caused him to run into that proverbial brick wall. And that brick wall can manifest itself in several ways. The Preakness was too short; the Belmont was too long. The track was too hard; the track was too soft. The pace was too fast; the pace was too slow. The turns were too tight; the turns were too wide. Or perhaps some new shooter shows up who is fresh and sharp and primed to spoil the celebration. And so it continues – 10 years, 20 years, 30 years and climbing.
Well, this year is different. This year we’re going to go about it the opposite way. Forget about I’ll Have Another’s strengths. We’ve already discussed those on the Derby trail each week and have concluded that he has all the attributes to win not only the Derby, but the Preakness and Belmont as well. So that leaves his weaknesses. What can prevent him from finally ending the Triple Crown drought?
This is going to sound sacrilegious and presumptuous, but the answer is nothing. At least nothing that he can control. Frankly, this colt has the sharp tactical speed to shorten up in the Preakness and the pedigree to relish the mile and a half of the Belmont. His fate could very well be out of his hands and that the only thing that can stop him is one of the Derby starters who were prevented from running their best race jumping up and running the race of their life at Pimlico or Belmont. And if I’ll Have Another should get by the Preakness, there will be a fresh Union Rags waiting for him at Belmont.
But all of that just may be moot. I’ll Have Another could simply be the best 3-year-old in the country at any distance, and as of now there doesn’t appear to be any reason why he isn’t. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. His toughest task is coming up. If, however, he should get past the Preakness, we think they should at least start polishing off the Triple Crown trophy, because this colt appears to have all the credentials to finally crash through those seemingly impenetrable gates of racing’s pantheon.
Trainer Doug O’Neill sure thinks he has what it takes.
“He’s three for three this year and he’s shown an amazing amount of will to win as we keep stretching him,” he said. “He travels beautifully, I know he’s got the stamina, and I know he’s got the heart. We just need some luck maintaining what we’ve got now. There will be Derby horses coming back who will be tough and others who are fresh and talented who passed the Derby. But I don’t see any reason why he can’t repeat his current form. He knows how to conserve his energy. Paul (owner Reddam) is a hockey fan, and he always says, ‘It’s only the first period; we still have two more periods to go.’”
O’Neill has left no stone unturned. When he gave I’ll Have Another two months off between the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) and the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), he worked him long and relatively quick, much like his one-time idol Charlie Whittingham would have done. When the colt had a little stiffness in his back following a work, he used vet-regulated shock wave therapy to help stimulate blood flow to the area. After the Santa Anita Derby, he kept the horse at Hollywood Park without giving him a work over the Churchill Downs track. When I’ll Have Another stepped off the van a week before the Derby, his coat was resplendent and he was full of life.
Once in Kentucky, he gave him long stiff gallops, making him the star attraction every morning, as he tore around there with great energy.
O’Neill continues to do things his way, shipping the colt to Pimlico two days after the Derby, just like in the old days, instead of keeping him at Churchill until the Wednesday before the Preakness, which has become standard practice the past 20 years. He also has decided not to keep him in the traditional Derby winner’s stall in the stakes barn and instead has him in a different barn away from most of the hoopla. And he said he will not work I’ll Have Another at Pimlico, and will continue to give him open gallops.
Another unconventional practice has been Reddam renting a house in Louisville and Baltimore for all the crew in order to keep everyone together and in good spirits and keep camaraderie at a high level. They had barbecues every night in Louisville, and as O’Neill said, “Everyone’s had a lot of fun. In Baltimore, Paul has rented a townhouse with a view of the water and the whole crew is staying there. It’s a great way of keeping everyone happy and pumped up.”
“(I’ll Have Another) has given us so much pleasure,” O’Neill said. “He has a beautiful mind and a beautiful stride, and has the ‘it’ factor of wanting to be the first one to the wire. So far, it’s been an amazing journey."
And there’s a good chance it’s going to get even more amazing.