'I'll Have Another' now a Triple Crown threat

I’ll Have Another overtakes Bodemeister in stretch to win the Preakness. Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun
I’ll Have Another overtakes Bodemeister in stretch to win the Preakness. Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun
Posted: May 22, 2012

ELKTON, Md. — Sometime around 10 a.m. Sunday, a horse van carrying Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another north on I-95 to Belmont Park, passed about 10 miles east of the Fair Hill (Md.) Training Center. The horse that will be going for the Triple Crown on June 9 in the Belmont Stakes was on his way to get familiar with the surface they call “Big Sandy.”

Meanwhile, the horse whose trainer thought might be going for the Triple Crown was hanging in his Fair Hill stall. Union Rags is quietly getting ready, away from the madness that is sure to envelop I’ll Have Another and his connections in the coming days. When Union Rags won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont last October, Michael Matz shipped him up the day of the race. The trainer isn’t certain if he will wait that long this time, but he is certain of his confidence in his colt. It has never wavered.

There is, however, the matter of horse racing arithmetical reality. I’ll Have Another really should not have been able to run down Bodemeister to win Saturday’s Preakness at Pimlico. One might be able to make the case that it was better to be outside than inside at Pimlico, but it is not an obvious case. Typically, really good horses that get easy leads and race comfortably do not get caught in the stretch. Change the names of the horses Saturday and, assuming equal ability, the horse in front probably wins 95 percent of the time which is why I’ll Have Another’s late charge to win by a neck was so impressive.

When I’ll Have Another had to run faster than he ever had to win, he did it, getting a career-best 109 Beyer speed figure. Union Rags’ best number is 95. At the Preakness distance of a mile and three-sixteenths, that equates to about 8 lengths difference.

The mile and a half Belmont is 550 yards longer than the Preakness. There is really no way to know which horses will be able to handle a distance they have never tried before and will never try again.

If I’ll Have Another manages to run a similar figure he ran Saturday, can anybody beat him? Bodemeister is out, having gone home to California.

The numbers say Union Rags can’t do it. Matz understands the numbers. He also understands his horse. He believes he has big numbers in him, if he gets a chance to get into his long, beautiful stride and run freely.

“I don’t see why not,” Matz said. “I don’t think he’s really been asked to run as a 3-year-old yet. I don’t know if a mile and a half is the time to start, but this is what I’ve got.”

Matz has been saying for months he would not change places and take any other 3-year-old. He is still saying it.

“I don’t think he had a chance to run,” Matz said. “It’s a shame. I really thought he could be in the same position as I’ll Have Another is in right now, if he would have got off all right [in the Derby]. He didn’t, so we are making Plan B.”

Matz is getting all kinds of unsolicited advice. One caller, who said he was the groom for the great Damascus in the mid-1960s, left two messages saying the trainer should run Union Rags in the Metropolitan Mile on Memorial Day and then run him back 12 days later in the Belmont. One woman sent a fax wondering if Matz checked Union Rags for Lyme disease.

Union Rags will have a new rider for the Belmont Stakes. Julien Leparoux, who delivered tentative rides in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, is out. While Matz was talking in his office Sunday morning, Ramon Dominguez called. Saturday night, John Velasquez sent Matz a text saying he “was open in the Belmont.”

Matz called Velasquez’ agent Angel Cordero and told him “not to do anything.” Cordero said “I’m waiting for you.”

Matz wants to give owner Phyllis Wyeth options before a final jockey decision is made. But Matz did say he was trying to get a three-race commitment from Velazquez back when Javier Castellano gave up the mount in February. “Johnny V” could not do it because he was committed to ride Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup, the same day as the Florida Derby. Leparoux got Union Rags. Animal Kingdom got hurt. And nobody ended up happy.

Velazquez would be a great choice. So would Dominguez. They both know Belmont Park cold. It is down to those two.

“They’re both top riders,” Matz said.

Matz was told that if Velazquez gets the ride, he will give him a commitment through the end of the year.

“I’m going to let this up to Phyllis,” Matz said.

Union Rags has some catching up to do as the one-two finishers in the Derby and Preakness have separated from the pack. Hard to imagine a horse running much better than Bodemeister in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The two races total 4,290 yards. The fast colt led for all but about 100 of those yards and could do no better than second, a tribute to the heart and tenacity of I’ll Have Another, unbeaten in four 2012 races.

The Triple Crown has been won 11 times. Since Affirmed last did it in 1978, 11 horses have come to Belmont Park with a chance. None has won. Some, like Smarty Jones and Real Quiet, ran great and were beaten by circumstance and an inch. Some champions, like Spectacular Bid, Alysheba and Sunday Silence, were beaten by very good horses running great races or, in Bid’s case, a bizarre ride. There is no common denominator other than that they all got beat.

I’ll Have Another will probably face around 12 opponents. Union Rags and Dullahan, third in the Derby, are serious threats. As is Paynter, who got a 106 Beyer figure, in an easy win on the Preakness undercard. He is trained by Bob Baffert who would really like to beat I’ll Have Another. There will be a few others with credentials and the requisite crew of no hopers.

I’ll Have Another finally figures to go favored for the first time in his career. Union Rags is the likely second choice.

“My dreams always ended with winning the Kentucky Derby,” I’ll Have Another’s trainer Doug O’Neill said Sunday. “They never were followed up with winning the Preakness and going to the Belmont. That’s a new dream now I’m waiting to pull off.”

Some have wondered about O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez. But not the only man who counts.

“There may have been doubts about the trainer and the jockey, but the doubts were not expressed by me,” owner Paul Reddam said.

The jockey was an unknown, but he has been almost as good as the horse. The trainer has won three Breeders’ Cup races, other major races like the Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap and Pacific Classic and 28 training titles at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Fairplex. Team O’Neill knows how to win. And they have a horse that clearly wants to win.

So, can I’ll Have Another win the Belmont and the Triple Crown? Absolutely. Will he? Check back in 19 days. n

Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com

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