05/21/2012 1:30PM

Belmont 2012: I'll Have Another still full of vigor for Triple Crown run

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Tom Keyser
I'll Have Another remains relatively fresh and fit after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Soon after I’ll Have Another won the Robert Lewis Stakes in February, the decision was made to not race him again until the Santa Anita Derby, the theory being he would be fresh not only for that race, but for the Triple Crown series if he was fortunate enough to keep doing well.

That may have seemed wishful thinking at the time. Now, it looks like a brilliant plan, for I’ll Have Another has arrived in New York with a chance to capture the Triple Crown.

His bid will come June 9 in the 144th Belmont Stakes, the last and, at 1 1/2 miles, the longest of the Triple Crown races. I’ll Have Another already has won both the Kentucky Derby and, last Saturday, the Preakness Stakes. He has been given flawless rides by Mario Gutierrez, and appears to have held up well physically to the rigors of this quest so far, earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 109 in the Preakness.

But his being in this position may very well date to the fateful decision made by trainer Doug O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam the day after the Lewis.

“He hadn’t run in five months, so we thought it was smart to wait nine weeks for his second start of the year,” O’Neill said Sunday morning at Pimlico, before I’ll Have Another was sent by van to Belmont Park. “That’s why we’ve been able to succeed, and be where we are.”

[BELMONT STAKES: Possible starters, video interviews, latest updates]

Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown. And, since the series was last swept by Affirmed in 1978, 11 horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but come up short in the Belmont.

So, I’ll Have Another will join one of two lists. He will be a Triple Crown winner, putting his name alongside Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Or he will become the latest Derby and Preakness winner to fail in the race known as the “Test of the Champion,” which since 1978 has proved insurmountable for Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown.

O’Neill thinks he can pull it off.

“It gives us a lot of confidence, the way he galloped out both in the Derby and [Preakness],” O’Neill said. “He’s always had an amazing stride. Another amazing thing is how he’s handled all the pressure, like the crowds. He’s handled it all perfectly.”

I’ll Have Another was sent by van to Belmont Park on Sunday. The van – which included three other O’Neill runners, plus former racehorse Lava Man, now a stable pony -- encountered quite a bit of traffic, mostly owing to an accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, so what is usually a four-hour trip took nearly 5 1/2 hours. He is in Barn 9, which belongs to Mark Hennig, who also trains horses for Reddam.

I’ll Have Another walked the barn’s shed row on Monday, but is expected to on the track and training no later than mid-week. O’Neill flew back to California on Sunday -- “I’ve still got a lot of nice horses out there that my owners probably want me to pay attention to,” he said – but said he would likely be in New York by the end of the week.

O’Neill wanted to get I’ll Have Another to Belmont Park as soon as possible so he could acclimate to the surroundings and the surface. Similar strategy certainly paid off in the Preakness. I’ll Have Another arrived at Pimlico a full 12 days before the Preakness.

O’Neill had never before run a horse in the Preakness. Gutierrez never had ridden at Pimlico until last week. It’s a similar scenario in the Belmont.

“Staying injury free and healthy, and getting Mario used to the track,” O’Neill cited as his primary objectives over the next three weeks.

“I want to make sure Mario gets a chance to ride before the Belmont,” O’Neill said. “It’s a unique course. But as we’ve seen from Mario in the first two legs, he’s unbelievably patient.

“He’ll have a target on his back. He’ll just have to ride his race. He’ll have to see all the riding going on around him and stay clear. It looked like there was a little race riding on the first turn of the Preakness, but he stayed cool. The guy seems like he’s been riding a lot longer than he has.”

As of Monday, 19 days before the Belmont, there were 12 other horses under consideration for the Belmont, the most notable being Dullahan, who finished third in the Derby, and Union Rags, who was seventh in the Derby. Both skipped the Preakness.

Kent Desormeaux rode Dullahan in the Derby, but trainer Dale Romans on Monday said Javier Castellano would replace him in the Belmont.

Julien Leparoux rode Union Rags in the Derby, but he is unlikely to keep the mount. John Velazquez is the most prominent jockey currently without a Belmont mount.

Bodemeister, second in the Derby and Preakness, will not run in the Belmont, trainer Bob Baffert said immediately following the Preakness.

Mark Valeski, who won the Peter Pan Stakes on May 12 and has been considered a top contender for the Belmont, is doubtful for the race, trainer Larry Jones said Monday, citing the colt’s lack of energy since the race.

“Mark’s actually doing okay, but he got a little tired after the race,” Jones said from Churchill Downs, where Mark Valeski was sent after the Peter Pan. “He doesn’t have the same energy level. It’s looking like the Belmont is more and more doubtful. He’s not showing a lot of sparkle.

“I’m not saying he’s 100 percent out. But we may end up bypassing the Belmont and just waiting for the Dwyer.”

The Dwyer is June 30.

Jones said he had not worked Mark Valeski since the Peter Pan, and had no plans to do so until he perks up in his training.

“He’s acting like he’s a little knocked out,” Jones said.

– additional reporting by David Grening

2012 Possible Belmont Stakes Starters

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

Last Race

Alpha

K. McLaughlin

R. Dominguez

Kentucky Derby, 12th

Atigun

K. McPeek

undecided

Churchill allowance, 1st

Dullahan

D. Romans

J. Castellano

Kentucky Derby, 3rd

Five Sixteen

D. Schettino

undecided

Aqueduct allowance, 4th

Guyana Star Dweej

D. Shivmangal

undecided

Belmont OC/allowance, 2nd

I'll Have Another

D. O'Neill

M. Gutierrez

Preakness, 1st

Optimizer

D. Lukas

C. Nakatani

Preakness, 6th

Paynter

B. Baffert

M. Smith

Pimlico allowance, 1st

Rousing Sermon

J. Hollendorfer

undecided

Kentucky Derby, 8th

Stealcase

M. Casse

S. Bridgmohan

Derby Trial, 3rd

Street Life

C. Brown

J. Lezcano

Peter Pan, 3rd

Union Rags

M. Matz

undecided

Kentucky Derby, 7th

Unstoppable U

K. McPeek

J. Alvarado

Belmont allowance, 1st