If there was one thing
I learned about covering the Kentucky Derby it was to stay objective and don't
let personal relationships obscure your vision. It was all about the story and
backstories and telling them with a clear thought process.
But I have to admit
there was one year when I let my personal feelings trickle to the surface.
Although I had numerous stories and backstories on most of the Derby starters,
I did have a rooting interest, as slight as I tried to make it.
In 2012, Paul Reddam, with whom I had built a personal relationship, had a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). I'll Have Another had become a contender
after winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2) off a layoff and then eking out a
nose victory in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Reddam, one of the most positive
minded people I ever met, always exuded confidence, and has never hesitated in
running horses where they seemingly did not belong.
As he prepared for this
year's Derby, we exchanged emails, and one, which was typical of Reddam, was
providing a list of do's and don'ts to his employees who, with Paul's
encouragement and assistance, were planning a mass invasion on Churchill Downs.
Numbers 6 thru 9 caught
my attention and
were so typical of Paul:
we get really lucky and win, I hope you all pour down to the winner's circle
for a big photo and so your friends can see you on TV
7) If we lose, don't blame me, blame the horse.
8) It's a party, so don't do anything you wouldn't do at work.
9) The buses will leave to come back at 4:30 - be sober by the time you get to our
parking lot if you are driving home.
When I'll Have Another
arrived at Churchill Downs, I photographed him coming off the van and in the
shed and was impressed by his physicality and his professionalism. Accompanying
him was trainer Doug O'Neill's magnificent star Lava Man, who was now a stable
pony and had more people making the long trek to Barn 3 to visit him than I'll
Have Another did.
Each morning I was
amazed at I'll Have Another's training regimen, open galloping and getting
stronger the farther he went. He would be rolling down the stretch with such
speed I finally decided to actually clock him, getting him in a ridiculous :12
1/5 for the final eighth. I had to wonder how much longer a horse could keep up
this kind of pace.
The day of the post
position draw, Paul and his wife Zillah were late in arriving and were in the
parking lot when I'll Have Another drew post 19. How many horses had won the
Derby from post 19? How about none. But Paul seemed unfazed when he arrived,
having gotten the news from O'Neill by text message. He had supreme confidence
in his horse, even though his jockey Mario Gutierrez had never ridden in the
Derby and was a virtual unknown rider when Paul and O'Neill put him on I'll
Have Another and kept him on.
On Derby Day, as usual,
I went to the backstretch early along with my Blood-Horse colleague, features
editor Lenny Shulman, also a good friend of Paul's who would be writing the
winning owner's story for the magazine. Of course, we headed out to Barn 3 to
do the walkover with Paul.
Paul stood outside the barn shortly
before the announcement to bring the horses to the paddock. Dressed in a white
shirt and purple tie, the colors of his silks, he appeared relaxed and
confident as usual, believing I'll Have another was ready to prove to the world
what he already knew; that this was an exceptional colt.
Everything had gone perfectly since the day the son of Flower Alley - Arch's
Gal Edith, by Arch returned to training over the winter after being sidelined
with sore shins. O'Neill had done a masterful job getting the colt this far,
and Paul felt there was enough karma behind the story of Gutierrez to appease
the Derby gods.
O'Neill was his usual fun-loving self, not showing any signs that he was about
to run in the most important race of his life. Even O'Neill's brother, Dennis,
who is more low-keyed and intense, was feeling good about their chances.
Team O'Neill, as they like to be called, was ready. I'll Have Another, who had
been tearing around the Churchill Downs track every morning for the past three
days, was ready. And Gutierrez, who had been riding at tiny Hastings Park in
British Columbia until this year and who barely knew what the Kentucky Derby
was when he came to this country from Mexico in 2006, was ready. This was his
time to prove to those who were convinced he would have a meltdown in the Derby
that he was able to compete at the highest level on racing's biggest stage.
"The great thing about this kid is that they're going to play ‘My Old Kentucky
Home,' and everyone else is going to be shaking, and he won't even care; he's
never even heard of it." Paul said with that familiar grin and twinkle in his
eye as we began the walkover. "Today is Cinco de Mayo, and he's more familiar
with mariachi bands."
As for his own nerves, he said, "I am not nervous in the slightest. I've been
nervous before; what good does that do? I was nervous before the Santa Anita
Derby, because, although I thought he was a good horse, you wonder if the Lewis
was some kind of weird fluke. I felt it was legitimate, but I had to see him do
it again. After he won, I knew he was the real deal, and now I really believe
he's going to run the race of his life."
Paul couldn't help but be grateful
that he was back again at the Downs after the failures of Wilko in 2005 and
Liquidity and Great Hunter in 2007.
Not even post 19 could dampen his confidence "It is what it is," Paul said as
we continued the walkover. "But we have two stone closers inside of us and one
outside, so we should be able to save some ground."
This time, the journey getting here
was rewarding in that, despite being unorthodox, every piece of the puzzle had
fallen into place. O'Neill and Paul had come up with a plan early in the year
to get to the Derby and stuck to it, even though very little about it was
You don't run a 3-year-old first time out off a five-month layoff and then give
him another two months off before his final Derby prep. They did.
You don't put an unknown rider from a small-time track in British Columbia on a
potential Derby horse who has no experience in big races. They did.
You don't work a young 3-year-old between races and have him go in 1:10 flat,
and then follow that up with stiff works at a mile, two at seven furlongs, and
one at six furlongs. They did.
You don't run in the Derby without having at least one work over the Churchill
Downs track, as 18 of the last 20 Derby winners had done. They did.
Mainly because of his post, I'll Have Another was sent off at a generous 15-1
for a Santa Anita Derby winner. After doing the walkover, as we approached the
gap leading to the paddock, Lenny and I parted company with Paul and wished him
good luck, then found our usual spot on the track by the rail.
You really couldn't see much of the
race from there, but it was a strategic location to get a jump on the immediate
post-race comments from the winning connections. The infield jumbo screen
provided the only real view of the race, but it was minimal. Each year, Lenny
depended on me to supply some idea what was going on, as I was more familiar
with the silks and the horses in general.
So, here they came into the stretch.
It was pretty obvious what was happening up front, as the Bob Baffert-trained
Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister had opened a five-length lead at the
three-sixteenths pole. No horse in memory had ever blown a five-length lead in
the stretch and Bodemsister was showing no signs of stopping. I was already
preparing my story line when I noticed a flash of purple on the far outside,
bearing down on Bodemeister. All I remember was shouting to Lenny, "It's Paul!"
Sure enough, there was I'll Have
Another chopping into Bodemeister's seemingly insurmountable lead with every
stride. As they passed by us, I'll Have Another charged to the lead and drew
clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Needless to say, Lenny and I were
ecstatic, and for that brief moment we were no longer objective journalists but
fans, as we sought out Paul and Zillah.
personal feelings aside, I had my story, having done extensive research into
I'll Have Another's background.
a 2-year-old that brother Dennis picked out at the Ocala Breeders Sales Company
April sale for $35,000. Bred in Kentucky by Harvey Clarke, the chestnut colt,
born on April Fool's Day, actually had been consigned as a yearling at the
Keeneland September sale as Hip no. 3660.
Enter Victor Davila, who would play a major role in the I'll Have Another
story. Davila was an exercise rider for Barry Eisaman of Eisaman Equine, having
worked there for 10 years. Several years ago, Davila saved up $5,000 and asked
Eisaman's wife, Shari, if she could buy him a yearling at Keeneland. She spent
the $5,000 on a Stormin Fever colt, whom he would sell as a 2-year-old for
$105,000. The following year he gave her $7,000 and she bought him another colt
whom he would sell for $35,000; still a good return on his money. With two
hefty profits, Davila decided to go to Keeneland himself in 2010 and it was
there he purchased I'll Have Another for $11,000. He just liked the colt's walk
and the ground he covered. He broke him and turned him over him to Eisaman to
prepare for the 2-year-old sale. Eisaman gave him about seven weeks of gate
training and consigned him to the sale.
"I envisioned him as a nice useful horse," said Eisaman, who watched the Derby
from the Atlanta airport while changing planes heading to the Timonium sale.
Davila watched the race at home with his family, and on Sunday was on the road
driving to Timonium.
"I was so excited watching the race," Davila said. "I can't describe the
Said Eisaman, "He's overwhelmed by all the attention he's getting. He's gone
from obscurity to someone people in the industry will recognize."
At the sale, l'll Have Another caught the astute eye of Dennis O'Neill, who
felt he'd sell for much higher.
"He breezed in :10 2/5 and they usually have to breeze in :09 4/5 or :10 flat
to be expensive," Dennis said. "But he had a beautiful way of going, and
definitely looked like he wanted to go long. He was weak behind and a little
straight up, and you could pick on some things, but I know by now what Doug can
put up with and what he can't. I thought he'd go for $60,000 to $80,000 and was
surprised we got him for $35,000."
had been in remission for several years after battling cancer. "I've been
through a lot," he said. "Going through what I went through makes me
appreciate this a little more and appreciate your family. You can say anything
you like about Doug, but he's the nicest, most caring person I know in the
world. I never would have made what I've been through without him. It's great
to celebrate this with him."
Doug,who is five years younger than Dennis, named his son after another brother,
Danny, who died of melanoma at age 37. One of Doug's most memorable
moments at Churchill Downs was putting an 11-year-old girl known only as Hope
aboard Lava Man and letting her sit atop the great horse, now a stable
pony. Hope was brought to Churchill through the Make a Wish Foundation.
Suffering from a terminal illness, her wish was to go to the Kentucky Derby and
Kentucky Oaks. After Doug lifted her from her wheelchair and put her on Lava
Man, he asked her, "Have you ever sat on five million
dollars before?" At the post-Derby press conference, Hope was
brought up to join Doug, Dennis, Paul, and Gutierrez and received a warm round
One of the reasons why Reddam and
ONeill have formed such a close and successful relationship is that they pick
each other's brain and offer suggestions and indulge in friendly debates as to
what is best for a horse.
When I'll Have Another was nearing his 3-year-old debut, having fully recovered
from his shin problems suffered in the Hopeful Stakes (G1), O'Neill came up
with the "brain surgeon idea" of sprinting him in an allowance race on the
Santa Anita downhill turf course. He told Paul of his idea while having dinner
with him and Zillah, and Paul promptly asked him if he had been drinking.
"You guys have been telling me how good this horse is, why wouldn't you think
about the Bob Lewis?" Reddam asked.
With the Lewis now the target, there was the question of who to get to ride.
They knew they'd never get Joel Rosario, who was Creative Cause's rider, or
Rafael Bejarano, who was riding Bob Baffert's best 3-year-olds. Paul just
happened to be watching a particular race won by this unknown rider named Mario
Gutierrez and liked what he saw.
"This kid looks good on a horse," Paul told O'Neill. "Let's try some new blood
and give him a shot."
Gutierrez, a native of Vera Cruz, had come to Del Mar from Hastings Park three
years earlier to see if he could get some mounts. He had no agent when he
arrived and didn't get a single mount, so he went back home to British
Columbia. But he was determined to try to make it and returned, hiring
85-year-old Ivan Puhich as his agent.
"He's a real Cinderella story, to come to Santa Anita from Hastings Park with
no agent," Paul said. "I watched him ride and I liked the way he sat on a
horse. That's when I mentioned to Doug about riding him in the Lewis. Doug had
never met the kid, and he suggested we have him work I'll Have Another, and
this way he could meet him and see how he gets along with the horse."
After working him, Gutierrez left the barn feeling both exhilaration and
disappointment. He turned to Puhich and said, "That is a real good horse.
There's no way they're going to let me ride him."
But he didn't know Paul Reddam, who has never been afraid to step out of the
box and do something different. And so it was that Gutierrez became the rider
of I'll Have Another. He gave the colt a flawless ride in the Lewis, springing
a 43-1 upset.
Many felt that was a fluke race, with the CashCall Futurity (G1) winner,
Liaison, clipping heels and throwing his rider after already appearing to be
beaten, and CashCall runner-up Rousing Sermon finishing a lackluster fourth.
Ironically, the CashCall Futurity was sponsored by Reddam's lending company.
Because I'll Have Another received such a fast speed figure in the Lewis,
O'Neill decided to pass up the San Felipe (G2) and train him up to the Santa
Anita Derby off an eight-week layoff. In between he worked him long and fast,
in much the same manner as Charlie Whittingham, of whom he was in awe when he
first started training. Ironically, O'Neill would become the first trainer to
win the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby since Whittingham did it with
Sunday Silence in 1989.
Leading up to the Santa Anita Derby, Paul was having trouble sleeping. Did he
have a Kentucky Derby horse or didn't he?
What really impressed him and boosted his confidence was that the day before
the race, Gutierrez watched the tapes of all nine starters on his own, without
anyone telling him to do it. Unlike the Lewis, I'll Have Another was tested by
the 2011 Norfolk (G1) winner Creative Cause and outgamed him to win by nose in
front of six busloads of Paul's employees and friends. Paul had designated one
of the busses as the drunken bus, but by the time they arrived at the track,
they were pretty much all drunken busses, with everyone chanting "Cash Call!"
The winner's circle was so packed they could barely get the horse in.
"With all the yelling and screaming, he didn't turn a hair," Paul said. "I
don't know what the race took out of him, but a dogfight like this was a good
experience for him."
Having survived a dogfight and a rambunctious crowd, I'll Have Another was
officially ready for the Kentucky Derby.
Shortly before leaving for Kentucky, he made the headlines by being placed on
the vet's list in California after undergoing extracorporeal shock wave therapy
(ESWT) on his back, which tightened up after his latest work.
"It's just a pulse that brings blood to an area," Paul said at the
time. "The horse has absolutely nothing wrong with him. Doug just did it
because he could do it, and his owner will pay for it. He's just leaving no
stone unturned. In California, you can't use it within 10 days of an upcoming
race, so you have to report it and go on the vet's list." From vet's list to
the list of Kentucky Derby winners.
So ended the one Derby that became
personal. What meant the most to me was getting an email from Paul after the
race, which read:
"One of my fondest memories of this Derby will be hanging out with the
two of you at the barn before we walked down the track and then walking on the
track with you discussing what was going to happen. I mean that will all
sincerity and even when it was happening I had thought that it was special and
the calmness and serenity of our group is something I'll remember 20 years from
"I should also mention one of the highlights of the Derby trail for me are our mini-marathon phone conversations, where we pick each other's brain and openly exchange thoughts and opinions in a light-hearted manner. It makes following the trail so much fun. To see it play out this way and end with a victory makes it all the more special."
Needless to say I have never had more fun writing a Derby recap, some of which you have
The story of I'll Have Another and his Triple Crown journey was far from over. But
more on that some other time.