Haskin's Preakness Recap: Purple Reign

The ominous shroud that has engulfed Thoroughbred racing recently is starting to lift, at least temporarily, thanks to the heroics of a golden chestnut colt named I’ll Have Another, who has come along at the perfect time to remind people that there is so much more to the Sport of Kings than what has been portrayed in certain publications. These publications feel the need to concentrate only on the darkest aspects of the sport, often embellishing and over exaggerating them.

With the daggers of drugs, scandals, and breakdowns being hurled from different directions, overshadowing the beauty and excitement of the sport, here comes this horse and his arch rival Bodemeister to reach out to the national public and enable them once again to experience the power the Thoroughbred has held over us for centuries.

It was all there in the 137th Preakness Stakes (gr. I) May 19 – speed, class, stamina, and most of all courage, as a determined I’ll Have Another wore down a stubborn and game Bodemeister, as he did in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), getting up right at the wire to win by a hard-earned neck in front of a record crowd of 121,309. The 8 3/4-length gap back to third-place finisher Creative Cause indicated just how powerful a performance this was by both colts.

Now I’ll Have Another, a son of Flower Alley – Arch’s Gal Edith, by Arch and bred in Kentucky by Harvey Clarke, heads to New York to attempt the unthinkable and unimaginable. He will try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Ironically, both I’ll Have Another and Affirmed won the Derby and Preakness by 1 ½ lengths and a neck, respectively, and defeated the same horse (Alydar and Bodemeister) in each race.

For the next three weeks, racing will come alive. When immortality is at stake and a new chapter in the history books is this close to completion, people all over America take notice.

Trainer Doug O’Neill and his charismatic band of brothers known as Team O’Neill, owner J. Paul Reddam and his now familiar purple and white silks, and the fairy tale story of jockey Mario Gutierrez have all become embedded in our psyche and are at the threshold of racing’s pantheon. Will those hallowed gates finally open after so many years and allow I’ll Have Another to join the likes of Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Citation, Whirlaway, and the other six immortals who reside there?

Whether they do or not, it is going to be a magical three weeks at Belmont Park, and to the victors go the spoils – a likely guest appearance on David Letterman, opening the New York Stock Exchange, a visit to the top of the Empire State Building, baseball games, Broadway shows. And no one will enjoy it more than the happy-go-lucky teddy bear, Doug O’Neill, and his band of merry men.

Not even the constant unearthing and recycling of past rulings, mainly overages of TCO2 (carbon dioxide), which could indicate the distasteful practice of “milkshaking,” will deter O’Neill and his team, which includes his brother Dennis, a cancer survivor who bought I’ll Have Another.

It is hoped that the American public will be informed more of all the charity work O’Neill has done and the time he spends with youth organizations and at children’s hospitals. The rest will play itself out over the course of time. For now, it should all be about I’ll Have Another and the many positive storylines that surround him.

Three days before the Preakness, Dennis O’Neil stood near the rail and tried to put the polarizing response to Doug’s Derby victory into perspective, especially after scathing articles by the New York Times and several other prominent newspapers.

“It doesn’t bother me as much as Doug,” said Dennis, who bought I’ll Have Another at the Ocala Breeders Sales company’s April 2-year-olds in training sale for a mere $35,000. “It’s been really hard on him. For me, I know who we are and know what we do, and that’s all that really matters. This guy was at the Children’s Hospital yesterday and is going to the local Boys and Girls Club today. Is he really that bad of a guy that people are attacking his character on some of the blogs? Can someone that fake do all these kinds of things? It’s just upsetting when they attack his integrity.

“As for the hearings, the facts are just crazy. The science behind it makes no sense. One of the things that can contribute to a high TCO2 level is Lasix and we’ve cut way back on Lasix. All horses generally get 5 cc’s and we give 3 to 4 cc’s. To be honest with you, I don’t even know what a milkshake is. And there was one positive where we had to Google the drug to find out what it was, because none of us had ever heard of it. Another was nothing but Tylenol. I asked Doug why he doesn't fight it and he said it cost too much money. But, finally, he said, 'That's enough,' He's now $250,000 in the hole in legal fees and had to take a second mortgage on his house. So, if he loses this, he's pretty much toast. Some people think Doug isn’t a horseman, but my brother Danny and I had a farm in Temecula for 15 years, and Doug was out there training and breaking horses, and foaling mares. He’s a tremendous horseman. He just doesn’t take credit for anything. I keep telling him he’s got to start pumping out his chest a little bit.”

For Doug and Dennis, it’s all about the team, which adds to this extraordinary journey. In addition to groom Iscencio Diaz and exercise rider Jonny Garcia, there are a number of others on the road trip of a lifetime, including assistant Jack Sisterson, racing manager Steve Rothblum, equine chiropractor Larry “Thumper” Jones, blacksmith James Jimenez, and, of course, stable pony Lava Man, all of whom have traveled with the colt every step of the way. The atmosphere at the barn is electric and the camaraderie is as strong as you’ll find anywhere on the racetrack. The crew even stay at a house, leased by Reddam, in each city.

On that Wednesday afternoon, O’Neill and several members of the crew headed for the local Boys and Girls Club just a short distance from the track. O’Neill gave out Preakness hats to all the kids and volunteers and led them in an “I’ll Have Another” chant. They participated in games of air hockey, foosball, and ping pong, and were serenaded by a girl’s singing group. O’Neill signed hats, posed for photos, and gave out his share of high-fives and fist bumps. But most important, he brought a great deal of joy to the kids and made a number of new fans.

Ken Darden, president and CEO of the Boy and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore, was thrilled with the victory and flattered that O’Neill took the time to say hello to everyone there in one of his TV interviews.

“It was an awesome experience and a phenomenal race,” he said. “Doug is fantastic and it couldn’t happen to a nicer team.”

But along with the fun came hard work. There was, after all, a race to be won, As the Preakness drew nearer, most of the talk was about strategy and what would happen if Bodemeister, who ran a sensational second in the Derby after setting blazing fractions, got loose on an easy lead. By the time Bode arrived at Pimlico on the Wednesday before the race, I’ll Have Another, who had shipped to Baltimore two days after the Derby, already had a number of stiff gallops over the track. As he did at Churchill, he tore around Old Hilltop in a near two-minute lick as if he’s been there his whole life, and it was apparent he was relishing the surface. He just glided over it, running straight and true, while barely making a sound.

On Thursday, Mario Gutierrez showed up and the crew gathered on the apron to watch I’ll Have Another turn in his sharpest gallop to date. As he came charging by the group, all you could hear were two words uttered by O'Neill: “Holy Moly.”

When it had a chance to sink in, O’Neill again was brief in his comments: “Poetry, bother.” He then engaged in his usual round of fist bumping before addressing Gutierrez, giving him some brief preliminary instructions.

“I’d love for you to press on Bode, so Bode kinda starts pulling Mike (jockey Smith)” O’Neill said. “Then back off on him and take a little rest, and going into the turn, go after him and take it to him.”

Bob Baffert, trainer of Bodemeister, had a slightly different take on the pace scenario.

“If they stay with him it’s good, because it means they’re chasing him,” he said. “Mike’s just got to wait a little bit. It’s a three-horse race between the California horses.”

Mike Harrington, trainer of Creative Cause, had the media believing him when he kiddlingly told a reporter asking about his strategy, “Oh, I might just send him.”

“That’s what started all that,” Harrington said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not, but all you have to do is plant a seed in the media and it can become a major storm.”

As for his real strategy, he said, “Everybody has the same scenario. Bodemeister is going to the front and I’ll Have Another will be following him, Hopefully, I won’t be more than five lengths off of it. But in reality, the race probably isn’t going to play out the way everybody thinks it is. I don’t know what’s going to change it, but I just feel that it may not turn out that way. Somebody is going to have to go after Bodemeister. They just can’t let him gallop along on the lead.”

Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor International, owner of Went the Day Well, a troubled fourth in the Derby, felt that Gutierrez might feel more pressure going into this race than he did when he was under the radar in the Derby. Irwin was thinking he might just wind up going too fast this time, trying to put pressure on Bodemeister.

“If Bodemeister actually wins this race and runs big off that last race, he’s one of the best horses we’ve ever seen, period,” Irwin said. “And he might be.”

Race day dawned cool and clear, with no humidity. Several of the Preakness starters went out for a leisurely gallop, with new arrival Teeth of the Dog turning in a pretty stiff gallop in his first outing over the track.

After the walkover to the paddock, Reddam tried to appear calm and relaxed as he waited for I’ll Have Another to be saddled. He actually felt the slower the pace the more it would benefit his horse, as it would allow him to stay close to Bodemeister and then outkick him.

“I think we’re training better than Bodemeister is, and I may be wrong, but I feel these three hard races close together are going to get him right there,” he said, pointing to the sixteenth pole.

But even that kind of positive thinking didn’t prevent Reddam from coming down with a case of nerves.

“I was so relaxed at the Derby, but I’ve been a wreck all week,” he said.

When the subject came up what a great time Team O’Neill was having in Baltimore, Reddam said with that familiar grin, “I would trade them having a bad time for a win.”

O’Neill didn’t have much say to Gutierrez that hadn’t been discussed before. “You’re going a mile and three-sixteenths; that’s still a long way,” he said. “Just ride him with confidence.”

But Gutierrez, whom Reddam discovered as an unknown rider after he boldly came to Santa Anita from tiny Hastings Race Course without an agent, has shown in his previous races that he has a great deal of confidence in both I’ll Have Another and himself.

When O’Neill asked him, “Have you visualized you winning this race at all?” Gutierrez responded, “Oh, come on, Doug,” as if to say, “Don’t ask me such trivial questions when I’ve got a job to do.” After all, the two of them were three-for-three together.

With the post parade completed, Reddam and his wife Zillah headed back across the track to the box area. Reddam was excited, but began fidgeting nervously, wanting to get this race over with and find out once and for all if the next three weeks would bring him, Team O’Neill, and I’ll Have Another face to face with immortality.

“For a horse owner and a horse enthusiast, it doesn’t get much more exciting than this,” he said, walking on the grass course toward the ramp that crosses the racetrack. “If this doesn’t get you off, you’re in the wrong game.”

Meanwhile, Baffert and his family and friends gathered around a flat screen TV at the edge of the indoor paddock.

As the horses headed into the starting gate, he said, “OK, take it home…he’s just got to get away clean and then hang up a :24 and change quarter and :48 half.”

The break was clean, with Bodemeister, as expected, going to the lead, chased by Creative Cause, Pretension, and I’ll Have Another, who had to take the first turn three to four-wide. But Gutierrez was able to keep him in a clear and comfortable spot by outrunning Went the Day Well to his inside before the Team Valor colt had a chance to park him even farther out.

“They’re going slow; good,” Baffert said, watching the bunched up field. “Twenty three and four (:23.89); keep slowing it down, Mikey…Where’s the wire?”

Heading into the backstretch, Bodemeister maintained a 1 ½-length lead over Pretension on the inside and Creative Cause on the outside, with I’ll Have Another on the far outside, about three lengths off the pace.

Baffert was looking for a :47 half. “Forty seven and three (:47.68); that’s good,” he said. “I’ll Have Another is looking good; he’s just cruising. The California horses are right there.”

Nearing the far turn, Creative Cause tried to take up the chase and eased his way to about a length off Bodemeister. I’ll Have Another still wasn’t going anywhere rounding the far turn, as Gutierrez began to scrub on him. Creative Cause had fired off his last bullet and it was obvious he was no match for Bodemeister on this day. I’ll Have Another began to inch his way closer, but still wasn’t making up enough ground to threaten Bodemeister.

“I’m getting anxiety,” Baffert said. “Where’s my heart medication?”

The Baffert group, sensing victory, just as they did in the Derby, began shouting, “Come on, Bode.” “Come on, Mikey.” Then came a somber “Oh, no” from Baffert.

I’ll Have Another was now rolling after Gutierrez did a masterful job getting him to switch leads. He went to a right-handed whip. I’ll Have Another was now leveled off and bearing down on Bode, cutting into his three-length lead with every stride. It was the Derby all over again. The wire wasn’t coming fast enough for Baffert. This time Bodemeister wasn’t about to go down without a fight. He dug in gamely and fought back when challenged by I’ll Have Another, who was lengthening the gap between himself and Creative Cause with every stride.

Inside the sixteenth pole, everyone began to sense that Bodemeister was about to go down to defeat again. There was still too much ground left to the wire for Bode to withstand the oncoming I’ll Have Another. With Gutierrez shaking the whip at I’ll Have Another, the Derby winner finally got the better of a game Bodemeister, thrusting his neck in front a stride or two before the wire. The winner had run his final two fractions in a strong :24 3/5 and :19, stopping the teletimer at 1:55.94, which was almost two full seconds faster than it took the top-class older horse Alternation to win the grade III Pimlico Special (1:57.60) by a nose. The beaten horse in that race was Nehro, who like Bodemeister is owned by Zayat Stables (who recently sold a minority share in Bodemeister). For Zayat, the tough beats just keep coming.

To demonstrate just how dominant the top two were, third-place finisher Creative Cause was beaten nine lengths, but still finished 5 ½ lengths ahead of fourth-place finisher Zetterholm.

Baffert, although disappointed again, said only “What a race.” His wife Jill had a stunned look on her face, having just undergone the same gut-wrenching emotions she did two weeks earlier.

All hell broke loose after the race, as a sea of Team O’Neill hats flooded the winner’s circle. As usual, there was lots of hugging.

Dennis O’Neill seemed awestruck, as if trying to convince himself this really did happen. It was if he had come to realize just what an extraordinary horse and bonafide superstar he had found on that seemingly innocent April day in 2011.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I cannot believe what just happened. To see him do it again, God, he’s a special horse. New York here we come. This proves that anything is possible. I hope it brings more people into the game and at the sales, realizing if I can do it, anyone can do it.”

Shortly after the race, a loud ovation could be heard from the grandstand. The natural assumption was that it was for I’ll Have Another returning to the winner’s circle. But a glance up the stretch revealed that the ovation was for none other than the peerless pony himself, Lava Man, who was heading down the stretch to wait for his buddy.

One person who goes way back with O’Neill is blacksmith James Jimenez, whose father trained the major stakes winner Agitate. Jimenez hooked up with O’Neill 18 years ago when the trainer had only three horses.

“We worked hard every day, and, of course, Lava Man put us on the map,” he said following the race. “We put together smaller claims, and then larger claims, made them successful, and just kept marching on.”

Jimenez says I’ll Have Another was a “studdish little horse” when he first starting working on him, and even had to be tranquilized on occasion, but kept steadily improving as he matured into a professional racehorse.

“He realizes he’s not just a horse anymore; he’s something special,” Jimenez said. “I told Mr. Reddam today that this horse will never lose by a nose. He has too much heart and competitive spirit. He wants to beat you. Some day he’s going to lose, but it won’t be by a nose. I call him an old soul. He’s become so professional I could just put my tools down and he probably would be able to tack the shoes on himself.”

Team O’Neill racing manager Steve Rothblum said, “He goes out and trains and he loves it. He comes back, eats everything you put in front of him and sleeps. He’s like a 7-year-old in a 3-year-old’s body.”

Rothblum is particularly happy for O’Neill, and like Dennis, he feels he does not get enough credit for being a horseman.

“Doug is a great horseman and a sharp sonofagun,” he said. “He had this horse prepared to the second. And he’s such a kind-hearted guy. He’s the kind of guy they should be showcasing, not trying to tear down. When we were walking over there wasn’t a single negative comment from the crowd. It was all positive.”

While Gutierrez was sitting at the winner’s podium, he looked over and gave a thumbs up to a couple standing quietly off to the side. They had every reason to be proud. Juan Lara and his wife Patty mentored Gutierrez in Veracruz, Mexico, teaching him how to ride while helping him in his studies at school.

“He wasn’t very willing with school, but he loved working with the horses,” said Patty Lara, whose husband doesn’t speak English. “We always knew he had the talent and the confidence. He didn’t know a word of English when he went to Canada. He couldn’t even ask for water. But he was always smiling and always confident in his ability. He takes on responsibility and he embraces life. Mr. Reddam and Doug gave him a chance and he took advantage of it. I think he’s magic.”

To demonstrate the responsibility to which Patty Lara alluded, Gutierrez told Reddam after the race, “I have to make sure I get back to Hollywood Park. My agent is going to kill me if I don’t ride tomorrow.”

Reddam proceeded to change his flight from noon to 10 a.m. and get a larger private jet, so they could get him back in time for his mounts.

Reddam couldn’t wait to call his 82 year-old father after the race. He told him, “You know how you always used to get on my case for liking racing and saying it was bad. It’s not so bad now, is it?

Reddam realizes the position he and O’Neill are in now, as ambassadors of the sport. They will be attempting to make history by capturing the most sought after and elusive prize in racing. After a 34-year drought they can provide some much-needed sustenance to the sport.

“Racing needs us to win the next one to put it back on the covers of magazines and newspapers across the country,” Reddam said.

Reddam also paid tribute to Bodemeister, who ran another remarkable race, proving once again he is an exceptional racehorse who would be a worthy champion in most any other year.

“That horse laid his body down,” Reddam said of the runner-up. “He didn’t lose the Preakness; we won.”

It was Reddam’s gluttony for cookies that resulted in the naming of a horse who has become a household name. Now Reddam should have an insatiable craving for only one brand: Keebler’s “Triple” Fudge cookies. You can bet he’ll have another of those.

Anyone expecting I’ll Have Another to show any signs of fatigue following such a grueling race were in for a surprise the following morning, as the colt cleaned out his feed tub, and it took two people to get his halter on. He stood bright-eyed at his webbing watching all the activity outside his stall and attempted to bite anyone who came too close.

At one point, Mike Harrington came around the corner of the barn and asked O’Neill, whom he called a hero, “Can I’ll Have Another spare some alfalfa?” As for Creative Cause, Harrington said, “He came out of the race good. Brokenhearted, but good.”

A short while later, I’ll Have Another departed Pimlico and headed for Belmont Park, where he will attempt to break more hearts. But by doing so, he will warm thousands of others and, along with Reddam and Team O’Neill, will show the world that racing indeed has a heart. How fitting in these troubled times to bring to the American public a remarkable horse who has exhibited time and again the courage of a champion.

All photos by Steve Haskin

Team O’Neill

I’ll Have Another the day after

O’Neill shows off empty feed bin

Grabbing Dennis’ sweatshirt

Thumper finds the right spot

I’ll Have Another bright and alert

Dennis and the mini Woodlawn Vase

Creative Cause looking for company

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