Goose Bumps by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the May 26, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds - @BlackCat30 on Twitter

By Evan Hammonds The May 19 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) was a special moment in our sport—an “Instant Classic.” If watching I’ll Have Another reel in Bodemeister in the Pimlico stretch during the second jewel of the Triple Crown didn’t stir the soul, perhaps you’re in the wrong business.

Watching from the winner’s circle at Old Hilltop, we only have two words to describe the stretch run: goose bumps.
While it’s only been two races, I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister have developed quite a rivalry—one that hopefully can draw a new generation to the sport. After the 11⁄4-mile Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the 13⁄16 miles of the Preakness, the two have been separated by a mere 13⁄4 lengths, and the 83/4 lengths back to Preakness third-place finisher Creative Cause shows these two are clearly on a different level from the rest of the pack…and the pack is considered a good, consistent crop of 3-year-olds.

After hitting the line together in the Preakness, can I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister begin to be mentioned in the same breath as Affirmed and Alydar, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer? Perhaps not quite yet, but give it time to percolate.

Co-owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert will pass the June 9 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with Bodemeister, who is clearly a freak up to nine furlongs. However, the pair hopefully will have plenty of other chances down the road to mix it up again, but for now let’s enjoy the ride to New York.

It’s unlikely the Maryland Jockey Club could have even imagined the ride they would get Preakness weekend. Splendid weather brought out a record crowd to watch a competitive card full of good races and an infield full of good musical choices, including headliners Wiz Khalifa and Maroon 5.

Few figured that would be the case a few years ago when MJC chief Tom Chuckas Jr. made a bold move—and the right one—to change the culture of the infield crowd at Pimlico. The ability to bring in unlimited amounts of alcohol and the frat party atmosphere of the event was a recipe for disaster, and Chuckas had the foresight and courage to pull the tap from the keg. The hope was that short-term pain—attendance fell 30% from 2008 to 2009 in its first year—would lead to long-term gain. With a savvy marketing program and bringing in top-line concert draws, they have reinvented the event for the better. The area around the bandstand for Maroon 5 was packed, the MJC had a record crowd, and the ontrack handle was among the best ever.

This year’s event was the success it was because of three things: the weather, an appealing headliner in the infield, and trainer Doug O’Neill’s going out of his way to become one of Maryland’s own during Preakness week.

Not only did O’Neill bring I’ll Have Another to Pimlico early—he arrived the Tuesday after the Derby, the earliest arrival of a Derby winner for as long as we can remember—but the trainer came, too. On May 12, a full seven days before the Preakness, O’Neill and his team ran in the Preakness 5K with stable pony and star Lava Man leading the runners around the track. The following day, O’Neill attended the Baltimore Ravens rookie mini-camp and had lunch with head coach John Harbaugh. On May 14 he not only visited the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center but also threw out the first pitch at the Baltimore Orioles—New York Yankees baseball game. The following day he visited the Boys & Girls Club near Pimlico.

Owner J. Paul Reddam and his wife, Zillah, made themselves accessible to the media. O’Neill also danced every dance with the MJC at their ontrack events and around town.

Oh, yeah, O’Neill also had time to watch his Preakness runner gallop in the morning and to train some other horses from the stakes barn. He also found the time to come to

the press box with jockey Mario Gutierrez and horseman Ciaran Dunne the day before the Preakness to watch videos of previous Preakness races to plot strategy.

Making himself accessible goes a long way in increasing awareness in the sport at the local level, and there was a payoff May 19. O’Neill’s past record brings plenty of baggage, but he hasn’t ducked the question and he’s gone out of his way to promote the sport nationally and at the grassroots level.

With a sweep of the Triple Crown hanging in the balance in the coming three weeks, racing has an opportunity.

And the connections of I’ll Have Another seem uniquely suited to help the sport take full advantage of it.

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