Horse possesses grit that can’t be caught

Published 9:15 am Monday, May 21, 2012

Column: Jim Litke, Associated Press

Every racehorse that captures the public’s imagination with a Triple Crown try has something more going for him than speed.

Jim Litke

I’ll Have Another doesn’t have Big Brown’s size, or his “look-at-me” swagger. He doesn’t have the blue-collar bona fides that Smarty Jones and Funny Cide did, the aristocratic connections of War Emblem, the rags-to-riches background of Charismatic, or the superstar trainer behind Real Quiet and Silver Charm.

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But what the chestnut colt has in abundance is grit. The kind you can’t teach.

In both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he spotted a speedy rival named Bodemeister the lead and then reeled him in a few strides short of the wire. Two weeks ago at Churchill Downs, it was in sweltering heat over a fast strip at 1 1-4 miles. On Saturday, with picture-postcard weather, tighter turns and only 1 1-16 miles to work with, I’ll Have Another again zoomed down the stretch at Pimlico like his tail was on fire.

“He gutted it out,” said owner J. Paul Reddam, a former USC philosophy professor who made his fortune in the mortgage business.

“The other horse was not stopping. He ran a bang-up race, to come and catch him. How can you criticize that? The horse has done everything that we have asked of him this year. He hasn’t had the most respect. He’s never been favored,” Reddam said. “But for those who have followed the horse and bet on him, that’s been pretty rewarding. I don’t know if that will be the case next time, though.”

That will be at the 1 1-2-mile Belmont Stakes come June 9. But that one will be run without Bodemeister, who was the favorite in both the Derby and Preakness and played a gallant Alydar to his rival’s relentless Affirmed.

“He’s getting off the bus here,” said Bob Baffert, who trained Bodemeister and knows more about the trap doors fellow trainer Doug O’Neill and I’ll Have Another will have to sidestep over the next three weeks.

Baffert brought War Emblem (2002), Real Quiet (1998) and Silver Charm (1997) to New York for Triple tries.

“The next leg is always the toughest. It gets pretty hairy,” he said. Then looking at the reporters encircling him, Baffert quickly added, “And dealing with the media might be the toughest part.”

That hardly fazed O’Neill, who learned last week how withering the sport’s spotlight can be when he had to respond to a range of questions about drugging horses in the past. In fact, he relished the attention and practically promised to throw open the doors of his barn to as many reporters and TV cameras as it would hold.

“The great thing about having a horse like I’ll Have Another, it opens a lot of doors,” O’Neill said.

“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,” he said, “if we can.”

Baffert stopped short of offering O’Neill any advice. Asked whether he’d be rooting for the first Triple Crown winner to emerge since Affirmed in 1978, he replied, “I might have another horse there.

“But say this for I’ll Have Another,” Baffert added. “He lays it out there.”

Trainer Michael Matz, whose Teeth of the Dog finished fourth in the Preakness, learned a thing or two about expectations while guiding Barbaro. With Bodemeister headed to the sideline, Matz’s bay colt, Union Rags, might provide the toughest competition. Union Rags will also be fresh, having skipped the Preakness after a rough trip in the Derby resulted in a seventh-place finish.

“It’s great to have a horse rise to that level — good for the sport, the trainer, the fans,” Matz said. “I’ll Have Another looks like he’s peaking. It will be interesting to see if he can run a third one.”

Actually, make that a fourth. I’ll Have Another burst onto the scene when he ran down Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby a month before turning the tables on Bodemeister at Churchill Downs. The questions about 25-year-old, largely untested jockey Mario Gutierrez back then have been left in the dust.

“My horse has a tremendous kick at the end. He has been proving that in the last three races,” Gutierrez said. “He didn’t disappoint again today.”

Reddam was, well, philosophical when asked if I’ll Have Another had yet another great race in him.

“A lot of horses have been in this position in the last 15 years and it didn’t happen for them,” he said. “So when we get to the Belmont, just ride the race. And if it happens, it happens.”

They have arrived in New York, big ones and small ones, silver, black and brown ones, the bashful and the born entertainers. Yet the thing each contender has been remembered for, finally, was failing to get the job done.

Now it’s I’ll Have Another’s turn to try.


Jim Litke is an Associated Press sportswriter.