I'll Have Another arrives At Belmont
The final leg of the U.S. Triple Crown is up for decision this weekend, and the possibility of another Triple Crown winner emerging has energized the media in North America. Every newspaper and TV channel has sprouted an expert and even the Business News Network has spared time between currency hedging and bullish stocks to devote a segment to the event! The city of New York, home to Belmont Park where the race is to be run, will see its iconic landmark, the Empire State Building, commemorating the occasion by switching on its tower lights in the purple and white colours of J. Paul Reddam, owner of leading three-year-old and cynosure of all eyes, I'll Have Another (by Flower Alley).
As already recorded in these columns, I'll Have Another has annexed both the Kentucky Derby on May 5th and the Preakness Stakes on May 19th. Just eleven opponents stand between him and immortality. His California-based team has spared no effort to ensure his well-being in the days leading up to the race, renting a 7-bedroom home near the track in which they have installed assistant trainers, exercise riders and grooms, along with an equine chiropractor and an equine physical therapist. Trainer Doug O'Neil has been on hand throughout, while rider Mario Gutierrez was sent to Vancouver for a spell of relaxation, before resuming on Friday, where he has a mount or two to assist him in familiarising himself with Belmont Park.
Several factors come into play in determining whether I'll Have Another will fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the Turf community. Chief amongst these are:
a) The mile-and-a-half trip
b) The surface at Belmont Park
c) The gap between races
d) The workouts
Dealing with the first, tradition has ensured that the Belmont Stakes has not yet been a victim of the American propensity to degrade the breed by slashing the distances for a number of major feature events in the continent. Unfortunately, less than 10% of the Graded Stakes in North America are programmed for 10 furlongs or further so most runners will never get a chance to compete over longer.
Fortunately, I'll Have Another has numerous stamina-laden elements in his pedigree. Stout elements like Sadler's Wells, Roberto, Pleasant Colony and Caucasus all appear in the fourth generation, and the well-conditioned chestnut has raced like a stayer, coming from behind and putting in his best work at the finish. Therefore, there is little doubt he will get the trip.
Coming to the second factor, the surface at Belmont is a bit tricky for the uninitiated, whether horse or rider. It is a deep sandy dirt track, with wide sweeping turns and a twelve-furlongs circumference. Since it is so atypical of other North American tracks, and since it has a relatively long straight – 334 meters – by American standards, there is always the risk of moving too soon or leaving it too late. In this case, most likely, both I'll Have Another and his rider will adapt.
As regards time off, while I'll Have Another has had a three-week gap since he was last seen under silks, there are some who query whether this is enough for a full recovery from the exertions of his previous efforts. What appear at this stage to be his principal rivals, Dullahan (by Even The Score) and Union Rags (by Dixie Union), have both enjoyed a five-week break. With modern training techniques, not to mention the physiotherapy and TLC, one doubts if this factor will have any impact on the result.
Finally, while no runner has worked better than Dullahan – he had a sparkling breeze, going 4 furlongs in in 00:45.97, with the last two furlongs clicking off in 00:22.20 – I'll Have Another has been no slouch. His trainer has intentionally opted to do no more than to keep him ticking over, rather than subject him to fast work. The 4 to 5 favourite, who will break from post position 11, has shown his well-being in a gallop on Thursday morning. Trainer Doug O'Neil ventured: "He had a really good day of training. He showed good energy and he cooled out really well. I'm very happy with where we are two days out."
So what are the prospects of the chief opponents? Dullahan is a very real threat – in the Kentucky Derby he came with a wet sail to be only a length and three-quarters behind I'll Have Another. What's more, he gets a new rider in Javier Castellano, replacing Kent Desormeaux whose well-documented demons have unfortunately resurfaced. Schooler Dale Romans is quietly confident: "I wouldn't trade places with anyone. I want to walk out of here with 120,000 people booing me". The 5 to 1 chance starts from stall no. 5.
The massive, 17-hands Union Rags has yet to show that he has trained on at 3. However, if any track should suit him, it is Belmont. Like Dullahan, handler Michael Matz's ward gets a new pilot – none other than Johnny Velasquez. The canny veteran is at the top of his game and is keen to obliterate the memory of last year's Belmont, when his fancied mount Animal Kingdom was injured. Owner Phyllis Wyeth summed it up neatly when she said: "Obviously, we have been a little disappointed, but we still feel Union Rags hasn't run his race."
Only Optimizer (by English Channel), from the D. Wayne Lukas barn joins I'll Have Another from amongst those last ran in the Preakness Stakes, and while he should certainly stay well, he has a lot of leeway to make up on form.
The most promising of the newcomers is Bob Baffert's Paynter (by Awesome Again), coming off a facile victory on the Preakness undercard. He is owned by Ahmed Zayat, who suffered the mortification of seeing his fine colt Bodemeister twice suffering crushing defeats at the hands of I'll Have Another. Zayat feels he has a chance of turning the tables: "From day one, Bob Baffert thought Paynter was the better horse", which of course remains to be seen.
There is absolutely no logical reason to oppose I'll Have Another, although punters might like to hedge with Dullahan and Paynter. Racing will be the gainer if the handsome chestnut lives up to expectations and obliges. The race is at 6:40 p.m. EDT on Saturday, June 9th (4:10 a.m. on Sunday, June 10th in India).