06/07/2012 12:40PM

I'll Have Another one lap away from Triple Crown immortality

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Tom Keyser
I'll Have Another would become the 12th Triple Crown winner with a victory in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. – I’ll Have Another was born in Kentucky, received his early training in Florida, began his racing career in California, and has flown to Kentucky, Maryland, and twice to New York in the past nine months. He has traveled many miles, but no journey will seem farther than the one on which he embarks on Saturday, when I’ll Have Another, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, attempts to become a Triple Crown winner in the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.

The Belmont is 1 1/2 miles, one lap around Belmont Park, but there is a 34-year history of failure in this endeavor. Not since 1978 has a horse swept the Triple Crown.

“Thirty-four years of it not happening. That’s a pretty strong statistic,” Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, said earlier this week. “You’ve got to stay injury-free. You have to maintain your physique and your energy. That’s a huge hurdle.”

The numbers 11 and 12 are prominent in this Belmont Stakes. There are 11 Triple Crown winners, the last being Affirmed. Since Affirmed, 11 horses have won the Derby and Preakness and failed in the Belmont. I’ll Have Another will be the 12th horse to join one of those lists. The Belmont is the 11th race on the card. I’ll Have Another will start from post 11 in a field of 12 in a 12-furlong race. This is the 144th Belmont – 12 squared is 144.

Post time for the Belmont is scheduled for 6:40 p.m. Eastern; the first race is at 11:35 a.m. The Belmont will be shown live by NBC in a 2 1/2-hour telecast beginning at 4:30 p.m. NBC Sports Network has live Belmont programming from 3-4:30 p.m, and a postrace show from 7-7:30.

The forecast for Saturday, according to The Weather Channel, is for a high of 80 degrees, and a 30-percent chance of isolated thunderstorms.

[BELMONT STAKES: Past performances, video updates, contender profiles, odds]

I’ll Have Another will be an odds-on favorite to complete the sweep, but his connections, though confident in his chances, have been soberly realistic about the task.

“My own experience is that when we’re an overwhelming favorite, we always lose,” said Paul Reddam, the owner of I’ll Have Another, who cashed a sizeable bet on his colt when he won the Derby at 15-1.

“If you could put me in a time machine and go back four months, and say you’re going to win the Derby, and you’ll have to take your chances in the Belmont, and you’re going to get crushed, would you accept that? Yes, I would take the refrigerator – the Derby.”

I’ll Have Another has clearly proven himself the best horse of this good group of 3-year-olds. He won the Robert Lewis and Santa Anita Derby in California, became the first horse to break from post 19 in the Derby and win, then ran the fastest race of his life to catch the talented Bodemeister in the Preakness, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 109, which towers over this group.

Now, though, he must run for the third time in five weeks at a third different racetrack. He is facing accomplished rivals like Dullahan and Union Rags, who were third and seventh, respectively, in the Derby and then skipped the Preakness to come into this race fresh.

O’Neill has tried to take much of the uncertainty out of the endeavor. He sent I’ll Have Another to Belmont Park the day after the Preakness to get used to this sandy racetrack. I’ll Have Another trained brilliantly coming into the Preakness, and while he hasn’t looked quite as sharp this week at Belmont Park, he definitely had his best morning of the week on Thursday.

I’ll Have Another’s jockey, Mario Gutierrez, has put up flawless rides in the Derby and Preakness – and in the Santa Anita races before that – but he has yet to ride at Belmont Park. He was named on five horses on Friday’s card to help familiarize himself with the nuances of the largest main track in North America.

But there is plenty that has been out of the control of O’Neill.

Since the Derby, he has been subjected to widespread scrutiny over his record, which includes sanctions for a handful of horses testing for excess amounts of total carbon dioxide. He recently was given a 45-day suspension by the California Horse Racing Board for a carbon dioxide violation in August 2010 at Del Mar, his last transgression. That suspension is set to begin in July.

Since the Preakness, Belmont Park stewards have refused to let O’Neill use a nasal strip on I’ll Have Another. He wore one in his four previous starts this year in three other states. And all the Belmont horses were required by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board to go into a detention barn, a decision that was not announced until after I’ll Have Another won the Preakness.

O’Neill has become a lightning rod through this Triple Crown, his record debated by both the informed and the uninformed. He has maintained his innocence of the charges against him, has not gotten defensive when questioned, and has adhered to all the requirements to which New York authorities have demanded, though he drew the line on Wednesday afternoon when security personnel at the detention barn told him he could not cook oats for I’ll Have Another.

After O’Neill threatened to pull the horse from the race, citing that I’ll Have Another needs cooked oats to guard against colic, the order was rescinded.

No matter what opinion one may have formed about O’Neill in recent weeks or over the years, the facts are that this horse, I’ll Have Another, won two important stakes in California earlier this year and passed all the required tests, won the Derby and passed all the required tests in Kentucky, and won the Preakness and passed all the required tests in Maryland. The focus, O’Neill maintains, should be on what his horse has done, and what he is trying to do.

“It’s been an unbelievable ride,” O’Neill said. “He’s handled the whole journey as good as you could ask a horse.”

D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Optimizer, agrees that the focus has oftentimes been misplaced during this Triple Crown.

“The story should be that horse,” Lukas said. “We should be excited that there’s a potentially historic moment in racing.”

Indeed, that is why a crowd of more than 100,000 is expected to attend this Belmont. They do not care about cooked oats, detention barns, nasal strips, or any of the other sideshows this Triple Crown circus begat.

No, they will be here to see if I’ll Have Another can run his way into the history books, and join the likes of Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, and be called a Triple Crown winner.

2012 Belmont Stakes Field

Post

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

Watchmaker
Odds

Morning
Line

1

Street Life

C. Brown

J. Lezcano

15-1

12-1

2

Unstoppable U

K. McPeek

J. Alvarado

30-1

30-1

3

Union Rags

M. Matz

J. Velazquez

6-1

6-1

4

Atigun

K. McPeek

J. Leparoux

30-1

30-1

5

Dullahan

D. Romans

J. Castellano

5-1

5-1

6

Ravelo's Boy

M. Azpurua

A. Solis

50-1

50-1

7

Five Sixteen

D. Schettino

R. Napravnik

50-1

50-1

8

Guyana Star Dweej

D. Shivmangal

K. Desormeaux

50-1

50-1

9

Paynter

B. Baffert

M. Smith

12-1

8-1

10

Optimizer

D. Lukas

C. Nakatani

30-1

20-1

11

I'll Have Another

D. O'Neill

M. Gutierrez

3-5

4-5

12

My Adonis

K. Breen

R. Dominguez

30-1

20-1

Television: NBC, 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.; NBC Sports Network, 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.