"On to New York, baby," winning trainer Doug O'Neill said as his Flower Alley colt got by pacesetting Bodemeister to win Saturday's Preakness Stakes by a neck. After a similar victory over the same foe in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier, only the June 9 Belmont Stakes now stands between I'll Have Another and the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
The last horse to have a chance to win the Triple Crown was Big Brown in 2008. I'll Have Another is the ninth horse in 16 years to have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
O'Neill said the Preakness stretch run seemed interminable as his colt made his run at Bodemeister.
"I'm just numb," the California-based trainer said. "I could see him and I felt like he was coming. But you never want to expect that he's going to be in front. I saw him coming. It seemed like the stretch never ends. Thank God. Usually you want it to end. Incredible."
Before the race, O'Neill had talked about taking the lead if Bodemeister didn't get out to a good start. In fact, jockey Mario Gutierrez let I'll Have Another relax behind the leader even though the early fractions were not exceptionally fast.
"We wanted to be a little bit closer to Bodemeister this time," Gutierrez said, "because normally that horse runs a huge race. My horse has a tremendous kick in the end. He has been proving that in the last three races. He didn't disappoint again today."
Bodemeister's trainer, Bob Baffert, twice has gone to the Belmont with a chance to take the Triple Crown, only to lose that final race.
"It's one of those things where it's good for the sport," Baffert said. "It's good for the Belmont. It's tough … I'm proud that as a trainer my horse showed up and he ran his race. He just got beat."
Gutierrez was riding on a minor circuit in western Canada until O'Neill and winning owner J. Paul Reddam tapped him to ride I'll Have Another. He has not ridden in New York, where Belmont's sweeping, 1 1/2-mile main track presents unusual challenges.
"I think I'm going to go back to ride at Hollywood Park," the jockey said. "It all depends on what Mr. Reddam and Doug O'Neill say. If they ask me to go with the horse, I will go with the horse because he deserves me to be with him. If that's what they want, I will go there."
O'Neill said he is looking forward to the three weeks in the Big Apple before the Belmont.
"The great thing about having a horse like I'll Have Another, it opens up a lot of doors," he said. "You get to meet so many people who love horses and they love horse racing. Along the way, if we can share a little bit of the backstage fun of it, and the excitement, and the beauty of it, I would like to do that.
"I would love the opportunity to do cool things in New York if we can."