The Year the Derby Got Personal

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:

6) If 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 conventional.

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.

All personal feelings aside, I had my story, having done extensive research into I'll Have Another's background.

He was 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 feeling."

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."

Dennis 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 of applause.

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 now.

"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 just read.

The story of I'll Have Another and his Triple Crown journey was far from over. But more on that some other time.

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